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Satellite's failure on eve of hurricane season ruffles meteorologist


This artist conception shows the GOES-East satellite. The weather satellite malfunction for the second time in less than a year on Tuesday.

For the second time in less than a year, the main satellite that keeps an eye on severe weather systems in the eastern half of the United States has malfunctioned, according to government officials. The failure is indicative of the overall aging of the nation's weather satellite network that could lead to gaps in coverage as the fleet is replaced, an expert said.

Although a backup satellite began operating Thursday, the failure of GOES-East, also known as GOES-13, is "really bad timing because of the upcoming hurricane season, and also we are smack dab in the middle of severe weather season," Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, told NBC News.

Hurricane season officially starts on June 1. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an outlook Thursday calling for a "possibly extremely active" season with 13 to 20 named storms, including three to six major hurricanes with winds of 111 miles per hour (179 kilometers per hour) or higher.

The satellite that failed on Tuesday is one of NOAA's three geostationary satellites. GOES-East hovers above the equator at 75 degrees longitude, providing a steady stream of image data for the eastern U.S. and Atlantic Ocean. The second satellite is GOES-West, which focuses on the western U.S. and the Pacific.

The backup satellite, GOES-14, is in geostationary orbit at 105 degrees longitude. This 30-degree difference between GOES-East and GOES-14 means "you can't see as far east," Thomas Renkevens, deputy division chief with NOAA's satellite products and services division, explained to NBC News.

"You can still see the United States, you still see the Caribbean, and a good part of the Atlantic Ocean," he added. NOAA cooperates with European weather agencies to ensure coverage over the entire ocean basin. "We are not blind in any area."

Should the backup satellite also fail, NOAA would have to lean more heavily on its European partners, and would probably have to put GOES-West into full-disk mode, he explained. In that mode, it takes an image of Earth's entire disk every half hour. "From that, you can see the full United States, and a little bit of the Atlantic Ocean, really the coastal areas, at a very slant angle," Renkevens said. "It is not ideal … but it is better than nothing."

NOAA put GOES-West in full-disk mode on Wednesday as a stopgap while GOES-14 was being activated. 

The loss of GOES-13 on Tuesday marks the second time the satellite had malfunctioned in less than a year — it last blinked out in September prior to Hurricane Sandy, and took several weeks to repair. Engineers are still studying Tuesday's failure to determine the cause and whether the satellite can be fixed, Renkevens noted.

The failures are "indicative of the creeping problem that we are all worried about with our overall weather satellite infrastructure," said Shepherd, who is also a professor and research meteorologist at the University of Georgia.

The satellite fleets that meteorologists use to monitor severe weather and generate forecasts are aging. Replacements are scheduled to launch beginning in 2015, but between now and then there is growing concern "that we are going to end up with gaps in our coverage," Shepherd said.

Renkevens said the agency is "doing the best we can with what we have, trying to make it last as long as we can, not only for more data for the users, but of course the benefit of the taxpayer." 

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John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.