GAO Warns on Schedule Risks for NOAA's Polar and GEO Weather Satellites

GAO Warns on Schedule Risks for NOAA's Polar and GEO Weather Satellites

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a pair of reports today on NOAA’s two new weather satellite programs — the polar orbiting JPSS and the geostationary GOES-R series — warning that schedule challenges could result in data gaps for both types of systems.

For several years NOAA itself has been warning about the possibility of data gaps because of budget constraints and programmatic issues.  A number of reviews have been carried out by GAO and an independent review team headed by industry icon Tom Young.

NOAA launched the last of its current generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, NOAA-19, in 2009.  That series was supposed to be replaced by the NOAA-DOD-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), but that program was terminated in 2010 after years of schedule slips and cost overruns.  The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is NOAA’s successor to NPOESS to meet civil weather satellite requirements, but encountered its own delays and cost growth since that time.  Currently, the first JPSS is expected to be launched in 2017.  Concerned about a data gap between NOAA-19 and JPSS-1, NOAA is using a NASA technology development satellite, Suomi-NPP, as a bridge between the two systems and hoping Suomi-NPP, launched in 2011, continues to function until JPSS-1 is operational.

Today’s GAO report on JPSS found that “recent cost growth on key components likely is unsustainable and risks remain that could increase the potential for near-term satellite data gaps.”  It warns that “a gap in satellite data may occur earlier and last longer than NOAA anticipates.”  Almost 40 alternatives have been identified for mitigating any gap, GAO reports, but NOAA’s contingency plan has “shortfalls” that GAO wants addressed.  It made five recommendations and said the agency agreed with them.

As for geostationary satellites, NOAA plans to launch the first of the new GOES-R series in March 2016.  NOAA keeps three Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) in orbit — two operational (GOES-East and GOES-West) and one on-orbit spare.  The satellites have letter designations while in development and numbers after launch.  GOES-13, -14 and -15 are now in orbit.  They are third-generation satellites that will be replaced by the fourth-generation GOES-R series (-R, -S, -T and -U). 

GAO reported today that the GOES-R program “continues to face challenges in the areas of schedule, cost, and functionality” with “delays in major milestones and cost overruns on key components.”  The concern in this case is that a gap may develop in the availability of the on-orbit spare.  NOAA faces “a potential gap of more than a year during which an on-orbit backup satellite would not be available” so if one of the operational satellites failed, a gap in data could occur.  NOAA has, in fact, experienced problems with GOES-13 and GOES-14 (the spare) has been activated to replace it, though ultimately GOES-13 was brought back into service each time.

GAO wants NOAA to “address shorfalls in its defect management approach, reduce the number of open high priority defects, and add information to its satellite contingency plan.”  As with the JPSS report, GAO said that NOAA concurred with the recommendations.

For more information on NOAA’s satellite programs and how they fared in the FY2015 budget process, see our fact sheet.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.