A weather satellite camera designed and built by Harris Corp.'s Fort Wayne plant is underperforming half of each day because of a malfunctioning cooling system, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday.
Harris' Advanced Baseline Imager was launched March 1 aboard the GOES-17 spacecraft, which collects weather data in the Western United States. A problem with the imager's cooling system was discovered three weeks ago, NOAA officials said during a conference call with reporters.
“We are getting degraded performance on the infrared and near-infrared channels. Not zero performance, but degraded,” Steve Volz, director of NOAA's Satellite and Information Service, said about the Harris imager.
He said NOAA, NASA and Harris are trying “to understand the anomaly and find ways to start the engines, if you will, of the cooling system to function properly.” Identifying and fixing the problem might take months, he said.
Volz said troubleshooting the imager from 22,000 miles away “is a challenge. But we're used to doing it; we've done this in the past. ... But it is going to take some time to find out what the root cause is.”
Volz said the federal agencies and Harris are working on “test-run scenarios” to try to replicate on the ground what is going on in the satellite.
Harris communications manager Kristin Jones acknowledged performance concerns in an email to The Journal Gazette.
“Harris discovered our Advanced Baseline Imager's (ABI) thermal subsystem on board the GOES-17 spacecraft is unable to remove enough heat from the instrument to keep our infrared detectors cold enough to operate through the hot part of the day. We are working closely with NOAA, NASA and other industry experts to troubleshoot,” the email said.
Pam Sullivan, GOES-R flight project manager, said the imager is cooled by propylene in a piping and radiator system. The system temperature is supposed to be minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit but has been warmer between about 6 p.m. and about 6 a.m. Eastern time, when the sun is shining into the aperture of the imager.
The malfunction is affecting 13 out of 16 channels of the camera. Affected channels “are very key” for gauging wind heights and water vapor, said Joe Pica, director of the Office of Observations at NOAA's National Weather Service.
Harris supplied imagers for three other NOAA satellites that are in orbit. Volz said those instruments are “functioning quite well.”
NOAA officials described the GOES-17 imager problem as “serious,” “upsetting” and “deflating,” but they expressed confidence in the mission.
“It's never as bad as it looks the first time you see it, and we're certainly ready to maximize the performance of this system, even given the compromise that we're seeing right now,” Volz said.
He also said, “We have a lot of information, a lot of performance from the spacecraft.”