NOAA weather satellite transferred to U.S. Air Force

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WAILEA, Hawaii — A retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration geostationary weather satellite is being handed over to the U.S. Air Force to fill in a gap in the service’s forecasting requirements.

NOAA spokesman John Leslie confirmed Sept. 19 that the GOES-13 satellite, decommissioned by NOAA in 2018, is being transferred to the Air Force to operate at a new orbital location, which the agency did not disclose.

“Consistent with a memorandum of agreement between the U.S. Air Force and NOAA on space-based environmental monitoring, NOAA is transferring the decommissioned GOES-13 satellite, which previously operated for 10 years in the GOES-East position, to the U.S. Air Force at the agency’s request,” Leslie said in an email to SpaceNews.

Satellite observers, in particular amateur trackers, had noticed in recent weeks that the GOES-13 satellite had been drifting west. NOAA had made no public announcement about the satellite, but some speculated that it was being moved to another orbital slot to serve the Air Force.

Leslie said that with the two newest GOES satellites, GOES-16 and -17, in operation at the GOES-East and GOES-West orbital locations respectively, and with GOES-14 as a spare, “NOAA can provide GOES-13 to the Air Force for their weather forecasting needs.”

The Air Force publicly expressed an interest in a spare GOES satellite at a January 2017 meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Seattle. The Air Force said it was in discussions about taking a GOES satellite, then identified as GOES-14, and moving it over the Indian Ocean to fill a gap in weather coverage there. The Air Force has been relying on spare European weather satellites to provide coverage there, but the one currently serving that region, Meteosat-8, is expected to run out of fuel in 2020.

NOAA said at the time that discussions with the Air Force were still in preliminary stages. A year later, NOAA officials said discussions were ongoing with the Air Force “to figure out if any of our older assets can help meet their observational needs or requirements,” said Ajay Mehta, at the time the acting deputy assistant administrator for systems at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service.

Those comments came shortly after NOAA decommissioned GOES-13 after serving as the GOES-East satellite for seven years. Controllers moved the spacecraft to a slot at 60 degrees west in GEO to serve as a backup.

Leslie said that once GOES-13 reaches its new location and its instruments are checked out, “NOAA will operate the satellite on behalf of the Air Force during its remaining life span.”