GAO renews satellite warning

A looming gap in satellite coverage that could dangerously impair weather forecasts and advance storm warnings is now officially high risk, according to the Government Accountability Office. (NOAA image)

A looming gap in satellite coverage that could dangerously impair weather forecasts and advance storm warnings is now officially high risk, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The mitigation of potential gaps in satellite coverage was one of two new issues added to the agency’s biennial list of high-risk programs and topics, issued Feb. 14 by U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

"Right now, gaps in polar orbiting satellites that provide early, midday and afternoon warnings to feed computer weather prediction models and provide 3-, 4- and 7-day forecasts [could] occur as early as 2014, and could last up to 53 months," said Dodaro, testifying before the oversight committee.

Dodaro added that the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts concluded in a study that without information from polar orbiting satellites, meteorologists would have predicted Hurricane Sandy would turn out to sea, leaving coastal residents without a warning from one of the worst storms in history.

A gap in polar orbiting satellite data endangers "property and lives" and could have dire economic consequences, thus the addition to the High Risk List, Dodaro said.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has acted on previous GAO recommendations to produce mitigation plans, the High Risk Report states "these plans are only the beginning," suggesting congressional oversight is necessary to address the problem.

The news raised eyebrows among members of the Oversight committee, as did the inclusion of the federal government’s fiscal exposure to risks posed by climate change to the High Risk List.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) shook his head at testimony offered by Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, on the gap in satellite coverage. Gowdy asked if the gap was truly likely, to which Powner replied, "There is a high-probability of a 17-month gap."

"Wow," Gowdy said, shaking his head again.

Why the potential gap?

Since the 1960s, scientists at NOAA, a scientific agency under the Commerce Department, have been using polar orbiting and geostationary satellites to observe the earth. Polar-orbiting satellites circle the Earth at low orbit in a north-south orbit much closer to the Earth’s surface than geostationary satellites, providing measurements like storm direction, speed and intensity, which is fed into data-driven forecast models.

For more than four decades, the United States has operated two operational polar-orbiting satellites – one by NOAA and the other by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, managed by the Air Force.

But those satellites have aged, and beginning in 2002, a joint program managed by the Department of Defense, NOAA and NASA called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was supposed to replace them.

But the program disbanded in 2010 after a series of schedule delays, ballooning costs and management problems, the High Risk Report states, and key responsibilities were transferred to individual agencies.

NOAA established the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPPS) program in response, but even with NASA assisting on it, a true replacement polar orbiting satellite will not be operational until at least 2017.

The program was able to launch and operate a converted demonstration satellite, originally called the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), but its life expectancy is short because of "poor workmanship in the fabrication of the instruments," the report states. If it only lasts three years – which the report suggests is possible based on opinions by NASA engineers – the gap in satellite observations could be four years.

NOAA is exploring a few options to mitigate the issue. They include: maximizing the life of the NPP demonstration satellite; investigating how to speed up the development of the second JPPS satellite; and developing a plan to address potential data gap, which could include substitute satellite observations, non-satellite data, weather modeling and data assimilation improvements.

Those options all come with varying price tags, Powner said, and NOAA will have difficult decisions to make in the near future. The agency will have to decide whether and how to support legacy satellite systems, and how much time and resources to invest in improving satellite models so they can glean information from alternative sources. In addition, it will have to decide whether to seek international agreement to access additional satellite systems, and how these plans broadly play in sustaining weather forecasts for the future.

None of the options, Powner said, is likely to be as effective as simply relying on polar orbiting satellites. But it is necessary to think about them, he said, because soon the country may not have any polar orbiting satellites operational.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Thu, Feb 21, 2013 Michael Hardy

Reporter Frank Konkel has answered a question raised here in our new blog, The Conversation. Read the entry at

Mon, Feb 18, 2013

Why does NOAA have anything to do with the launching of satellites? If NOAA needs a satellite they should just tell NASA what they need, and let the experts build and fly it. We don't need multiple agencies trying to build their own little empires of satellite operations.

Fri, Feb 15, 2013 George

Another option is to route big $$ to DMSP, who's contractors would (rather quickly) crank out a clone of an old model. You can bet the AF / DoD won't do that themselves with such massive cuts pending.

Fri, Feb 15, 2013 Beltway Bill

This was common knowledge in the sat weather community a decade ago. What's high-risk is that it takes so dern long and usually well-after the far-too-late-date for such things to make the GAO's list.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group