GAO critiques NOAA satellite programs

Congressional hearing, new reports explore program-management challenges and the problems that launch delays could produce.

Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites - NOAA

Artist's rendering of a NOAA GOES-R satellite. (NOAA image)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the midst of developing two major satellite systems worth more than a combined $22 billion. The programs are vital to the future of the country's weather prediction efforts, but the Government Accountability Office has issues with both.  

In one of two reports released Sept. 19, GAO criticized NOAA's next-generation polar-orbiting satellite program – called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) – for not developing a means to track the usage of satellite products or address weaknesses in component schedules, and urged NOAA to develop a contingency plan.

NOAA agreed with GAO's recommendations regarding its JPSS program, yet there is still cause for concern.

JPSS-1 is not scheduled to launch until 2017, and NOAA currently relies heavily on a converted satellite called the Suomi NPP for the lion's share of the weather data its polar-orbiting satellites produce. That satellite, launched in 2011, is not expected to last long, creating the possibility that NOAA could face months or even years without its own satellites in place to make daily readings. That could severely affect weather forecasts, especially regarding hurricanes and other large storm systems.

To deal with the problem, NOAA commissioned a third-party study to examine mitigation options. It ultimately examined 44 potential solutions to an expected gap in weather data that could occur as early as 2014.The study concluded the only "silver bullet" solution was to use data from Chinese polar-orbiting satellites that will soon be operational.

The potential JPSS gap was expected to be a main topic of conversation as NOAA, NASA and GAO officials were scheduled to testify Sept. 19 before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Subcommittee on Environment. The hearing was titled "Dysfunction in Management of Weather and Climate Satellites."

Also sure to arise, however, is a potential delay in another NOAA program -- this one for next-generation geostationary satellites.

GAO auditors said the $10.9 billion Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) program is not reporting key data on reserve funds to senior officials, has delayed interim milestones and is experiencing technical issues.

Those issues may delay the launch of the first GOES-R satellite.

NOAA had scheduled the first launch for October 2015, but according to the GAO's latest report, NOAA officials acknowledge the launch may be delayed by six months.

A launch delay would increase the time that NOAA is without an on-orbit backup satellite," the report said. "It would also increase the potential for a gap in GOES satellite coverage should one of the two operational satellites (GOES-14 or -15) fail prematurely – a scenario given a 36-percent likelihood of occurring by an independent review team."

GAO recommended NOAA address weaknesses in managing reserves and scheduling for the GOES-R satellite program, and that it address shortfalls in contingency planning, to which NOAA agreed.

Geostationary satellites orbit 20,000 miles above the Earth's surface, a height that matches their velocity to the Earth's rotation, keeping them in a fixed position relative to the planet. That allows them to provide large-scale satellite imagery of entire storm systems on both coastlines. Polar-orbiting satellites orbit only about 500 miles above the Earth's surface and their measurements provide a more complete picture of individual storm systems. Together, the daily data these systems produce weigh heavily in forecasts by the National Weather Service.

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