Premier Instrument on NOAA’s New GOES-17 Not Working Properly

Premier Instrument on NOAA’s New GOES-17 Not Working Properly

NOAA revealed today that the premier instrument on its new GOES-17 geostationary weather satellite is not working properly. The Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) has 16 channels to observe the Earth in different wavelengths.  Thirteen are in the infrared (IR) and near-infrared (near-IR) bands and need to be cooled to do their job, but something is wrong with the mechanical cooling system.  NOAA and other experts are trying to determine the root cause and how to remedy it.

GOES-17 was launched on March 1, 2018 and is 3 months into its 6-month checkout period.  It is the second of four next-generation geostationary weather satellites colloquially referred to as the “GOES-R” series.  During development, each of the four was assigned a letter: R, S, T, and U.  Once they are launched, those change to numbers.  GOES-R itself was launched in November 2016 and is now GOES-16.  GOES-S is now GOES-17.  GOES-T is currently scheduled for launch in May 2020 and will become GOES-18.  GOES-U will be GOES-19 after launch in 2024.

Artist’s illustration of a GOES-R series weather satellite. Credit: NOAA

This new set of GOES satellites has greatly advanced capabilities over its predecessors, several of which are still operating and form part of NOAA’s operational weather satellite system.  The problems with GOES-17 announced today are not affecting NOAA’s weather forecasting capabilities since it is not yet part of the operational system.   All of the other GOES-17 instruments are functioning well.

NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) manages NOAA’s satellite programs.  Steve Volz, who heads NOAA/NESDIS, briefed reporters during a media teleconference today.  He characterized ABI as the “premier” instrument on GOES-17 and emphasized that NOAA is taking the matter very seriously.  He also stressed, however, that even if the problem cannot be solved, the satellite will be useful even if it cannot provide the revolutionary data expected.

NOAA and the weather community are elated about the data being obtained with GOES-16 and were anticipating the same from GOES-17.   The ABI instrument on GOES-16 is working fine and there are similar instruments on two Japanese weather satellites, Himawari 8 and Himawari 9.  They also are functioning perfectly.

Thus the problem with the GOES-17 ABI is all the more mysterious.  All the ABIs are built by Harris Corporation.  Two more, for GOES-T and GOES-U, are already completed.

NOAA, together with experts from NASA and industry, have been working on the issue since it was discovered three weeks ago.  So far they have determined something is wrong in the thermal subsystem.  It is not keeping the focal planes of the 13 IR channels at 60 degrees Kelvin throughout the day.  During the “hot part” of the orbit, the temperature rises, and then falls again, so the channels are cooled for only about half of the day.

Pam Sullivan, GOES-R Mission Director and Flight Program Manager, explained that the ABI uses a mechanical cooling system that is overheating because the heat pipe-radiator part of the system is not properly drawing heat away to an external radiator.

Within the heat pipe, heat from the IR detectors is directed to an evaporator where liquid propylene is turned into a vapor and transported to the radiator, which cools it and returns it to a liquid state.  Something in that process is not working as intended.

NOAA officials remain optimistic that although a diagnosis and remedy will not be found “overnight,” in the next several months some type of solution will be found.  Sullivan said the experts on her team have “lots of ideas” and are being “creative about recovering ABI fully or as much as possible.”

In the meantime, Volz stressed that none of this affects any of NOAA’s weather products or services.  The geostationary weather satellite system, with GOES-16 in the “GOES-East” position over the Eastern United States and adjacent waters, and the older model GOES-15 at the “GOES-West” location, are working perfectly.

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