Friday, May 31, 2013

2013 Hurricane Season Starts with GOES 13 Satellite Failure

Hurricane Katrina
I bought this postcard in the gift shop at the CSN Planetarium Observatory, showing the huge Hurricane Katrina looming on the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. It devastated New Orleans and other coastal cities with the subsequent failure of the levee system. The image was derived from GEOS-12 satellite's visible wavelength data.

The Atlantic Hurricane Season starts on June 1st and ends on November 30th every year. For 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projects 13 to 20 named storms with sustained winds of 39 mph or higher, 7 to 11 hurricanes (Category 1 and above) with sustained winds of at least 74 mph, and 3 to 6 major hurricanes (Category 3 and above) with sustained winds of at least 111 mph. The most intense hurricanes (Category 5) have sustained winds at the speed at least 157 mph. Since there are only 12 named storms, 6 hurricanes, and 3 major hurricanes in a regular season, the 2013 season appears to be more active than average.

Hurricane forecasts rely heavily on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system for data input. However, GOES-13, also known as GOES-East, failed on May 22, 2013. The geosynchronous satellite sits 22,300 miles above the equator at 75°W longitude. It has a clear view of the Atlantic Ocean so it's very valuable to spot early tropical storm activities.

A backup satellite GOES-14 was activated on May 23, 2013. Since it currently remains at its storage position at 105°W, it does not see as far as GOES-13 to the east. It may be moved eastward eventually.

GOES-15, also known as GOES-West, hovers at 135°W longitude. It is responsible for monitoring weather conditions in the western United States and the Pacific Ocean. It remains operational after NOAA briefly expanded its coverage area during the activation of the backup satellite GOES-14.

With severe weather grows more frequently while more people live in the harm's way, it's important to ensure the redundancy of those earth observing satellite systems. However, the next back up satellite is not scheduled to launch until February 2016, subject to further budget and technical delays. There will be real worries in case future satellite troubles cause the gaps for data coverage.

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