GOES 13 Weather Satellite Fails Again: Write Your Own Title

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GOES 13 has failed again. Since this weather satellite is primarily responsible for satellite imagery of the eastern United States and western Atlantic basin, and since it was put on “super duty” for the Moore, OK tornado event (one image every fifteen minutes rather than the standard one image every 30 minutes), it’s easy to suspect the continuous hard work has put the 7-year old geosynchronous orbiter out of service. On the other hand, it was only September of last year when the unit started sending noisy and, ultimately, missing images (“GOES 13 Placed on Injured Reserve: Now We’re On Thin Ice“). So pick your title for this YWB article: “After Heroic Efforts, GOES 13 Needs Mending,” or “GOES 13 Fails: Didn’t We Just Go Through This?”

It’s not immediately apparent what has taken GOES 13 offline. Initial estimates were that the spacecraft would resume sending images in mere hours. However, the latest bulletin states 13 has been “…placed into storage mode while the anomaly is investigated.”

This full disk image from GOES 13 shows Hurricane Sandy off the East Coast of the United States. Image: NOAA

This full disk image from GOES 13 shows Hurricane Sandy off the East Coast of the United States. Click to enlarge. Image: NOAA

Mechanical breakdowns of highly technical, remotely-operated machinery are not unusual, but let’s remember how critical the mission of GOES 13 really is. It’s responsible for “GOES East” imagery, mainly that of monitoring the eastern United States and much of the western Atlantic Basin. In addition to overtime duty on the Moore tornado event this unit, launched on May 24, 2006 provided life-saving images of Hurricane Sandy last October. It also provides critical views of all weather systems — from developing frontal systems rolling off the High Plains into the Mid-west, to severe thunderstorm development and tornado outbreaks from Tornado Ally to the Deep South, to the explosive development of nor’easters that can impact the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast and eastern Canada, not to mention the high resolution imagery of the Tropics during hurricane season that provides the early warning for developing cyclones. And, as part of the newer generation of weather sats, GOES 13 also provides relay capability from distress beacons and monitors solar activity. In short, this single unit provides data that is critical in producing not only weather forecasts, but data that goes into producing life and death decisions made to protect millions of people and safeguard billions and billions of dollars worth of property and other resources.

This GOES 13 image shows the tornado outbreak over Oklahoma on May 20, 2013. Click to enlarge. Image: NOAA

This GOES 13 image shows the tornado outbreak over Oklahoma on May 20, 2013. Click to enlarge. Image: NOAA

For now, GOES 14 is being put into service to cover for the ailing GOES 13 (GOES 14 images are expected by later tonight). The newer GOES 14 was launched in June, 2009 and saw duty last year after the September failure of GOES 13, but its primary duty is to remain in standby mode until needed. The role of GOES West is being filled by GOES 15, which was launched in 2010 on a 10-year mission.

With GOES 14 picking up the duties of GOES 13, critical satellite images will continue. However, if GOES 13’s failure is permanent — causing GOES 14 to become primary GOES East — then there are no more spares and the next GOES failure will result in gaps in coverage. Fortunately last year’s GOES 13 failure was fixed from Earth and quickly resolved. 13 was offline for only about five weeks and returned just in time to monitor Hurricane Sandy as it began to affect the East Coast. [12-year old GOES 12 could be called from service over South America if needed, but it has already well surpassed its planned 5-year mission and should not be considered as a solution to a permanent GOES 13 failure.]

Artist's conception of GOES 13. Click for larger size. This Ray Kung image is from NASA.gov

Artist’s conception of GOES 13. Click for larger size. This Allan Kung image is from NASA.gov

We will hope that this latest failure, like last year’s, will be short-lived. However, at this early stage the exact cause of the failure is not precisely known. Without spare weather satellites on-hand we’re operating on thin ice, and the next scheduled launch of a new satellite is not until 2015 (GOES-R).

There is good news, however. Following Hurricane Sandy the Committee on Appropriations approved a continuing spending measure that allows the increase of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) budget for satellite procurement to $1.814 billion, $117 million more than the agency received last year. NOAA’s overall budget would rise to $5.1 billion (more).

You can check GOES 13 status here.

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