Program Management

NOAA assumes control of weather satellite

satellite image of earth

The Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite produced this composite image of Earth over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012, needing "312 orbits and 2.5 terabytes of data to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands," according to NOAA.

All systems are go for the converted demonstration satellite now producing the lion’s share of data critical to predicting severe weather events, and operational control has now been turned over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite was launched by NASA in October 2011 to mitigate a pending gap in weather satellite coverage that could last as long as 54 months, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

After an initial check-out phase, NASA transferred operational control of the satellite to the NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System, and after a lengthy systems-check period to ensure the proper operation of the spacecraft, instruments, communications and data products, the satellite is now under NOAA’s official control.

"The future is now for NOAA satellites," said Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, deputy administrator and acting chief scientist at NOAA. "The handover marks the dawn of the JPSS era. It also signals the effective teamwork between NOAA and NASA to launch and operate environmental satellites has worked for more than 40 years and will last well into the future."

The NPP satellite has been producing usable data for NOAA since May 2012, and the move to NOAA control signals the satellite is in good health.

Its smooth operation is vital because it is not expected to last long, and the next scheduled polar-orbiting satellite is not due to be launched until 2017.

The data the satellite accumulates while it orbits the Earth 14 times per day at 500 miles above the surface – measurements like storm direction, speed and intensity – are fed into data-driven forecast models operated by the National Weather Service. Information provided by the polar-orbiting satellites was particularly important in predicting the course of Hurricane Sandy, giving the public days of advance warning that the storm would strike the east coast.

"Satellites like Suomi NPP are critical to the National Weather Service mission and improved decision support services," said Louis Uccellini, Ph.D., director of NOAA's National Weather Service. "These polar satellites provide an important dataset for the global earth observing system and will lead to improved forecasts."

NPP became the stop-gap polar-orbiting satellite – converted from its creation as a demo satellite – after a decade of delays, cost overruns, schedule delays and management problems of a joint program operated by NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense.

The program, called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, was disbanded, and NOAA then established the JPPS program with assistance from NASA to launch the next generation of polar-orbiting satellites. The first one, however, will not be operational for another five years. And according to the GAO’s "high-risk" report, NASA engineers suggested the NPP satellite might last only three years due to "poor workmanship in the fabrication of the instruments."

The threat of losing the valuable data provided by polar-orbiting satellites has NOAA developing a plan to address the potential gap, which could include substitute satellite observations, non-satellite data, weather modeling and data assimilation improvements.

GAO officials have said, however, that those options likely come with high price tags. So the longer NPP stays operational, the better off taxpayers – and citizens in regions prone to severe weather – will be.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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