Potential Weather Satellite Gap Finally Getting Media Attention Thanks to Hurricane Sandy

Potential Weather Satellite Gap Finally Getting Media Attention Thanks to Hurricane Sandy

Perhaps one silver lining from Hurricane Sandy is that the storm is raising awareness of the long-known likelihood that there will be a gap in weather satellite coverage a few years from now because new satellites are not ready to launch before older satellites cease functioning.

The New York Times posted a story on October 26 summarizing the issues facing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) plans for new polar-orbiting weather satellites.  Although it confuses the roles of NOAA and NASA in some places, and fails to mention that there are similar concerns about NOAA’s geostationary weather satellites, it at least highlights warnings issued in several outside reviews of NOAA’s plans and by NOAA itself.

NOAA is responsible for operational weather satellites in two different types of orbits — polar orbits that circle the Earth passing over the North and South poles, and geostationary orbits above the equator where the satellite maintains a fixed position relative to a point on Earth.  NOAA’s polar orbiting satellites are called POES — Polar Operational Environmental Satellites; the geostationary satellites are GOES — Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites.  Both types of satellites are needed to forecast the weather more accurately.

NOAA officials have been cautioning Congress for well over a year about a potential gap in polar orbit satellite coverage, but in June the Government Accountability Office (GAO) added worries about the GOES satellite series as well.  GAO’s David Powner told a House subcommittee that GAO has only a 48 percent confidence that the first of a new series of GOES satellites (GOES-R) will meet its 2014 launch date, meaning a potential gap in geostationary coverage as well.

Three reviews of NOAA satellite programs since September — an Independent Review Team (IRT) established by NOAA and led by Tom Young, a review by the Department of Commerce’s (DoC’s) Inspector General, and a NOAA Science Advisory Committee Satellite Task Force report — have critiqued how NOAA and its parent, DoC, manage satellite programs. The Deputy Secretary of Commerce and the head of NOAA each issued directives to implement the findings of the Young IRT.

NOAA sets the requirements (what instruments are needed, for example) and manages the POES and GOES programs from development through operations.   Because of its expertise in spacecraft and launch vehicles, NASA serves as the acquisition agent for NOAA.  NASA arranges for and monitors contracts with the companies that build and launch the satellites.  NOAA obtains the money for the satellites from Congress and reimburses NASA for its work.

NOAA launched its final POES satellite, designated NOAA 19, in 2009.  A replacement program (NPOESS) that was to merge NOAA’s civil weather satellites with the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) military weather satellites failed programmatically and NOAA is now proceeding with a different program, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). 

JPSS-1 will not be launched until 2017, long after NOAA 19 is expected to cease functioning.    Therefore, NOAA seconded a NASA environmental research satellite, Suomi NPP, to fill the gap between NOAA 19 and JPSS-1.   NASA has its own program of earth science satellites that provide research data rather than operational weather data. 

However, as a research satellite, Suomi NPP was designed to operate for only three years and there is concern that it, too, will cease functioning before JPSS-1 is operational.  

The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended that NOAA’s satellite programs be transferred to NASA because it is not convinced NOAA has effective program management skills.   That recommendation was made as part of the FY2013 appropriations process, which is not yet completed.

Whatever agency is in charge, the need for weather forecasters to have satellite data in their toolbox is palpably evident today as the East Coast braces for Hurricane Sandy as well prepared as possible because of the ample warning time enabled by that data.

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