GAO Drops NOAA's GOES Weather Satellites from High-Risk List, but Adds DOD's

GAO Drops NOAA's GOES Weather Satellites from High-Risk List, but Adds DOD's

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its biennial assessment of high-risk government programs yesterday.  The report addresses programs in all parts of the government, including civil and national security space programs.  NOAA’s weather satellites have been on the high-risk list for several years, but GAO praised NOAA’s progress with its GOES series of geostationary weather satellites and concluded they no longer warrant inclusion. NOAA’s polar orbiting satellites remain on the list.  GAO also added DOD’s weather satellite program to the high-risk list because DOD lacks a comprehensive plan for providing required capabilities.

DOD and NOAA historically have operated separate polar-orbiting weather satellite systems to meet national security and civil requirements respectively.  In 1994, the Clinton Administration decided to merge the programs with an expectation that a more cost effective solution would result.   Instead, the combined program — the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) — encountered significant delays and cost overruns. The Obama Administration terminated NPOESS in 2010 and directed NOAA and DOD to resume separate programs.  No NPOESS satellites were ever launched.

Polar-orbiting satellites, as the term implies, orbit around Earth’s poles and can view the entire globe.  The United States and Europe cooperate in obtaining and sharing weather
satellite data.  DOD, NOAA and Europe’s EUMETSAT operate separate polar-orbiting weather satellites that pass over points on Earth at different times of the day.   DOD
satellites are in the early morning orbit, EUMETSAT’s in the mid-morning orbit and NOAA’s in the afternoon orbit.  Combining all that data results in more accurate forecasts.

DOD purchased a large number of its Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in the 1990s, several of which remained in storage and available for launch when NPOESS was cancelled.  Thus it did not have a sense of urgency to develop a substitute program.  By contrast, NOAA did not have spare Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) and quickly proceeded with a new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program.  The first JPSS is scheduled for launch this year.  Until it is operational, NOAA must rely on the Suomi-NPP satellite, which NASA built to demonstrate new earth observation technologies.  Launched in 2012, it was not designed as an operational satellite, but NOAA seconded it into service and it is part of the operational weather satellite constellation now.  It had only a 3-year design life, however, so GAO continues to be concerned about a potential data gap if Suomi-NPP fails before JPSS is operational.

Because it thought it had sufficient satellites in storage to cover several years, DOD moved slowly in designing its own new system.  However, the DMSP-19 satellite failed soon after launch in 2014.  DOD’s ambivalence about when or if it would launch the last of the series, DMSP-20, led Congress to demand that DOD either launch it by 2016 or dismantle it rather than continuing to pay expensive storage costs.  It was not launched.

Consequently, as GAO reported, DOD now finds itself relying primarily on DMSP-17, a satellite launched in 2006.  It has a plan for the future, the Weather Satellite Follow-on–Microwave (WSF-M), with the first operational satellite scheduled for launch in 2022.  GAO characterized the WSF-M plan as “not comprehensive,” however.  GAO criticized DOD because it “did not thoroughly assess options for providing its two highest-priority capabilities, cloud descriptions and area-specific weather imagery … due to an incorrect assumption about the capabilities that would be provided by international partners.”  The WSF-M does not address those requirements, GAO said, and DOD will have to rely on DMSP-17 until 2022, posing the risk that if DMSP-17 fails before then, a data gap will occur.  Hence the decision to add this program to GAO’s high-risk list.

NOAA also operates geostationary weather satellites in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite — GOES — series.  Geostationary satellites remain in a fixed position relative to a point on Earth and GOES is especially useful for monitoring tropical ocean regions where hurricanes form. The first of a new version of those satellites, GOES-R (now GOES-16), was launched last year.  Concerns about potential data gaps in geostationary weather satellite coverage put the GOES program on GAO’s high-risk list for several years, but GAO has concluded that NOAA resolved those issues and removed GOES from the high-risk list for this year’s report.

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