GOES-13 Instrument Failure Punctuates Lawmakers’ Concerns About NOAA Transparency

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WASHINGTON — House lawmakers scolded NOAA’s top satellite official here during a Dec. 10 hearing about a lack of transparency in the civilian agency’s major geostationary weather satellite program, which recently fell six months behind schedule on launching its next spacecraft.

The admonishments drew a mea culpa from Steve Volz, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and services, who testified here alongside David Powner, director of Information Technology Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office, in a joint hearing of the House Science Committee’s environment and oversight subcommittees.

Powner, roundly critical of NOAA’s lack of regular reporting on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program, groused at the hearing about the little-reported failure on Nov. 20 of an instrument aboard GOES-13 — a satellite whose mission to keep a 24/7 watch on the U.S. East Coast was quietly approved for a one-year extension in April.

Volz approved the extension based on an internal NOAA study he ordered shortly after joining the weather agency from NASA in December 2014. The study found GOES-13 could be relied upon for at least a year beyond its 10-year design life, placing its end of service sometime in mid-2017.

NOAA has since used the GOES-13 extension to downplay the risk of slipping the launch of the newest GOES satellite, the Lockheed Martin-built GOES-R, to October 2016 from March 2016. NOAA swapped launch slots so it could take its time fixing bad spacecraft components discovered in tests at Lockheed’s factory in Denver this year.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), chairman of the environment subcommittee with jurisdiction over NOAA, said he didn’t find out about GOES-13 until October, when NOAA disclosed GOES-R’s launch would slip for the second time in the program’s history.

Bridenstine warned Volz this lack of communication smacked of deception.

“From our perspective, we learn that there’s going to be a delay in launch for GOES-R, and at the same time we learn that we’re going to extend the life of another satellite,” Bridenstine said. “It looks like it could be intentional, that we’re just extending [GOES-13] so we can get to the next launch.

Stephen Volz NOAA
“The flyout chart change, that’s on me,” Stephen Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service, told the subcommittees. “It was my error not knowing how sensitive it was, how important it was that we communicate those [changes]. We will make that a regular thing in the future.” Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson

“If we knew that well ahead of time, it wouldn’t have appeared this way,” Bridenstine said, hastening to add he was not accusing Volz of cover-ups or schedule chicanery; the sophomore congressman has become a dependable space ally since joining Congress in 2012, where he has been active in space issues in general and weather satellites in particular.

Volz apologized for not keeping lawmakers in the loop.

“The flyout chart change, that’s on me,” Volz told the subcommittees. “It was my error not knowing how sensitive it was, how important it was that we communicate those [changes]. We will make that a regular thing in the future.”

GOES satellites keep watch on U.S. coastlines. The constellation nominally includes three satellites: two operational spacecraft and on on-orbit spare. The four satellites in Lockheed’s GOES-R series — which the company is building under a $1.4 billion contract with NOAA’s procurement agent, NASA — will keep watch on U.S. coastlines through 2036 at a total cost of about $11 billion to NOAA.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the GOES-13 instrument failure Powner mentioned will render moot the mission extension Volz quietly approved earlier this year.

That instrument, which Powner did not identify in his testimony, is GOES-13’s Sounder Instrument, according to NOAA spokesman John Leslie.

Leslie said the Sounder Instrument’s filter wheel jammed, and that “NOAA is attempting contingency configurations to return the filter wheel to operations, but it is too early to estimate the likelihood of success.”

The GOES-13 Sounder Instrument was built by ITT Exelis, which was acquired this year by Harris Corp. The 19-channel radiometer helps measure atmospheric temperature and moisture, surface and cloud-top temperatures, and ozone levels.

On a practical level, the Sounder Instrument’s failure means no infrared data for end users, according to a notice on a NOAA website.

“GOES-13 Sounder IR data is not available,” reads a note posted on a website operated by NOAA’s Office of Satellite and Product Operations. “All products from GOES-13 (GOES-East) Sounder IR data have been halted and distribution has been stopped. Engineers are investigating the problem.”

University of Wisconsin engineers captured these side-by-side images showing how GOES-13's jammed filter wheel affected the satellite's infrared channels (Credit: CIMSS Satellite Blog)
University of Wisconsin engineers captured these side-by-side images showing how GOES-13’s jammed filter wheel affected the satellite’s infrared channels (Credit: CIMSS Satellite Blog)

Even if GOES-R launches late and GOES-13 fails, coastal weather coverage could continue thanks to the six year-old GOES-14 backup satellite now on orbit.

However, as Powner pointed out at the hearing, lack of a third GOES satellite means NOAA is only one spacecraft failure away from losing coverage — a possibility the sudden loss of GOES-13’s sounder has thrown into sharp relief.

In a worst-case scenario, Volz said, NOAA could borrow a geostationary weather satellite from an international partner such as the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, Eumetsat.

“We have anticipated this possibility and worked cooperative relationships with our international partners so that they could loan us a satellite in the dire circumstances that we have two major system failures,” Volz said.