You may have noticed a few hiccups in the satellite images on your evening news or your favorite internet weather sites over the past week or so. Images included a lot of static or “noise” initially, then advanced into portions of the image that were missing. These image issues are the result of problems with the GOES 13 weather satellite. Initially GOES 15 picked up the slack, but starting yesterday GOES 14 has been called into duty while technicians attempt to isolate the problem with GOES 13.
Huh? GOES 13 breaks, GOES 15 swoops in, GOES 14 then takes over? Just what’s going on up there? Is there an air traffic controller (sorry, space traffic controller) moving these things around like airplanes around an airport? Actually, it kind of reminds me of the quarterback situation on the Houston Texans a few seasons ago. But yes, there is an organized team of controllers manipulating these school bus- and mini-van-sized geosynchronous satellites to make sure the best overall images are sent to Earth.
Let’s take a closer look at these GOES platforms. To the uninitiated, there is the weather satellite image that, for many decades, has been a featured part of the TV weathercast — end of story. Though the images on the evening news may, in fact, be the end of the story, the story itself is anything but simple. It involves scientists, technicians, teamwork, rockets and billions of dollars.
GOES is an acronym for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite and the history of weather satellites goes back more than 50 years, though the first weather satellite was not a GOES platform. The Vanguard 2, launched in 1959, was considered a limited success and paved the way for more technical and more long-lasting platforms. The first GOES was launched in 1974 and images from these systems have become a mainstay of not only the evening news, but of weather offices around the world. Today those images can come from any number of orbiting satellites — GOES, Polar Orbiters and DMSP platforms capable of producing a wide variety of visible and infrared images measuring everything from clouds, temperature and atmospheric humidity to pollution, soil moisture and snow coverage.
GOES 14, now in place for the broken GOES 13, was launched in 2009. After initial testing, it was placed in orbital storage until last month when it began scanning Tropical Storm Isaac. Then yesterday it was placed into service for the ailing GOES 13. GOES 13 had been designated GOES East and was responsible for images covering the eastern U.S. and the Atlantic Basin while centered over the Equator at 75 degrees west longitude (southern Colombia). GOES 14 had been over 105 degrees west (eastern Pacific Ocean) — not ideal, but its capable of much better images of the eastern U.S. and the Atlantic than GOES 15, a.k.a. GOES West, centered over 135 west (central East Pacific Ocean).
With GOES 13 out of service for now, what happens next? Until the exact problem is pinpointed, that’s unknown. Launched six years ago for a 10-year mission, it’s very much hoped that this is a simple fix from Earth. And with GOES 14 pulled out of storage, what’s left? Nothing (the next scheduled GOES launch is not until 2015). And that’s just as significant, if not more so, than GOES 13 failing four years sooner than expected. Should GOES 14 or GOES 15 fail, there is no backup and there will be significant gaps in coverage.
It’s easy to imagine a TV weathercast without a satellite image — just get to the 5-day forecast and quit screwing around with fancy pictures, right? But it’s a much bigger problem than that. Satellite images are not only useful for seeing where clouds are and aren’t, but they’ve become an integral part of creating short- and long-term forecasts, as well as local and regional forecasts for all sorts of purposes for all sorts of users. And let’s not forget hurricane analysis and forecasting — gaps in satellite coverage over the Atlantic will take tropical forecasting back to the 1950s, with many tropical regions effectively invisible to meteorologists.
Budget cuts make the future of weather satellite operations and funding appear bleak. To consider maintaining and even increasing funding to NOAA‘s weather satellite program anything but critical is a mistake. Satellite images are a single-source product provided by our government — the local meteorologist on TV is not creating a unique product, but is buying it from a vendor who purchases the image directly from the U.S. government. If satellites fail and funding evaporates, that’s it — there’s no more. And weather forecasting as a science and as a public warning system takes a tremendous step backwards.
GOES 13, we miss you and hope you get well soon. We want you back in service as soon as you’re up to it. Without you, we’re on thin ice.
YourWeatherBlog has written about GOES and weather satellite issues before. You can read about the newer, smarter GOES 15 here. You can also read about the new super weather satellite, the NPP, here. Speaking of funding (or lack thereof), there’s more on that here.