It's only been a few weeks since operators launched NOAA's latest satellite and started testing its data, but a problem was immediately visible.
The satellite's primary weather monitoring tool – the Advanced Baseline Imager – did not meet specifications for approximately 12 hours each day. The project scientists thought it was too hot.
"The cooling system is an integral part of [Advanced Baseline Imager] and did not start properly during the on-orbit checkout," the NOAA said Wednesday in a statement. "The problem affects the unit's infrared and near-infrared channels and the visible channels of the ABI are not affected."
Space is an extremely cold place – minus 450 degrees Fahrenheit. But without a protective layer like the Earth's atmosphere, the sun's rays are very strong. The sun can heat objects like satellites considerably. Because electronics work best in cold conditions, engineers build cooling systems to satellites to counteract the heating effects of solar radiation.
The cooling system is particularly important for the Advanced Baseline Imager, which can be thought of as a GOES-17. He sees the earth during the day and takes extremely high-resolution photos.
The imager also works in the dark because he – like some animals – can see infrared light. In fact, the Imager recognizes 16 different wavelengths, ranging from visible to near infrared to infrared, but to get accurate wavelength measurements, the instrument must be cool.
The instrument no longer runs cool enough for about 12 hours daily when the sun is shining over the horizon of the earth into the "eyes" of the imager.
The problem affects 13 of the 16 wavelengths, the infrared and near-infrared. The visible visual language is not affected, according to Steve Volz, deputy administrator of the NOAA satellite, data and information service.
Volz said a multi-mission team has been working on this problem for about three weeks.
"This is a serious problem problem," Volz said in a conference call on Wednesday. "We treat this very seriously with the Multi – Agency and the Contractor – and the technical team to understand the anomaly and find ways to start the engines of the cooling system, if you want.
All other satellites in its geostationary constellation – GOES-16, GOES-15 and GOES-14, which serve as backups – are "healthy" and there is no immediate effect of the GOES 17 malfunction, such as one issued by NOAA Statement shows.
Aside from the obvious problem – forecasters can not see the current weather 12 hours a day – the problem with GOES-17 has a significant impact on the forecast. Weather models use satellite data as one of their primary inputs. They use infrared and near-infrared data to determine wind speed and direction at all levels of the atmosphere.
Without this GOES-17 data, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on March 1, forecasts may not be as good as they could have been. The current forecast is not deteriorating, but the United States is losing a significant portion of its billions of dollars in investment in the next generation satellite project. And the project managers are not sure yet how big the loss will be.
All other instruments work as planned, Volz said.
All new NOAA satellites, the Advanced Baseline Imagers, were manufactured by Harris Corp. Kristin Jones, a spokeswoman for Harris Corp., said that "they have performed extensive performance testing of the instrument, including tests on the vibration, thermal and electromagnetic environments above what it would see during takeoff and orbit."
"We work closely with NOAA, NASA and other industry experts to fix bugs," Jones said.
Tim Walsh, the systems program director for the project, said that while it was daunting, a failure of this sort – especially after the success of the GOES-16 satellite – still places a lot of value on a system with disabilities.
"How do we maximize the mission?" Walsh said. "I think that's what we're focusing on right now."
This story has been updated to include a comment by Harris Corp. to be included
Correction: Infrared and near-infrared data unusable for 12 hours per day.