An illustration of the GOES 16 (formerly GOES-R) satellite, launched in November 2016. Credit: Lockheed Martin

BREMEN, Germany — NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Oct. 2 that they are convening a panel to investigate the cause of an instrument problem on a geostationary weather satellite launched earlier this year that impairs its functionality.

The agencies said they are establishing a mishap investigation board to probe the cause of the anomaly with the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument on the GOES-17 weather satellite launched in March. The board will be chaired by David McGowan, chief engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, with four other members from NASA’s Ames, Glenn and Johnson centers.

NOAA first announced a problem with ABI, the main instrument on GOES-17, May 23. Project officials said a cooling problem degraded the performance of the instrument’s infrared channels, preventing them from operating during parts of each orbit.

“This is a serious problem. This is the premier Earth-pointing instrument on the GOES platform,” said Stephen Volz, head of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, during a May briefing about the problem. “If they are not functioning fully it is a loss, a performance issue we have to address.”

In a July 24 update, NOAA said they had been able to restore some of the lost performance, but said some infrared channels were not functioning during parts of each orbit. Engineers had narrowed down the cause to a problem of some kind with loop heat pipes in the instrument that was keeping coolant from flowing through them properly.

NOAA said they had also discovered a similar problem, at a smaller scale, with the ABI instrument on GOES-16, the first of the new generation of weather satellites known as GOES-R that include this instrument. While that problem had not kept the instrument from working properly, it suggested the possibility of a systemic flaw in the ABI, which will also be flown on two future GOES-R series satellites.

In an Aug. 8 update posted on a website for the GOES-R program, NOAA said it had, for the first time, been able to get imagery from all 16 ABI channels thanks to “adjustments in operating procedures.” However, that update cautioned that seasonal variations would still result in lost data, particularly in the spring and fall. During those times, nine infrared channels will have outages of two to six hours per night, NOAA estimated.

NOAA and NASA said they convened the mishap investigation board because they determined the problem degrading the infrared bands, which varies both based on the time of day as well as season, would reduce the instrument’s availability by three percent, causing it to fall short of a key design requirement.

The mishap board is set to start its work as soon as possible, the agencies said in the announcement, but did not disclose a schedule for their work.

NOAA is planning to put GOES-17 into operation late this year at the GOES-West orbital slot at 135 degrees west. Despite the ABI problem, NOAA said in its August update, GOES-17 “will provide more and better data than currently available.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...