Tom Young IRT Report to NOAA: Urgent Need for JPSS Gap-Filler

Tom Young IRT Report to NOAA: Urgent Need for JPSS Gap-Filler

An Independent Review Team (IRT) chaired by Tom Young today issued an urgent call to build a “gap-filler” for NOAA’s polar orbiting weather satellite program and make the system robust.  The IRT is keeping an eye on NOAA’s new weather satellite programs: the polar-orbiting Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series.

Last year, the IRT issued a withering report that called the Department of Commerce’s (DOC’s) oversight of the weather satellite programs “dysfunctional.”   DOC is NOAA’s parent.  In its updated report released today (dated November 8), the IRT said that those problems have been largely resolved and, overall, gave NOAA and DOC good grades on implementing its 23 recommendations from 2012.   The IRT assessed 20 as “green” or “yellow” meaning that the issue had received a positive response or that it received a positive response but continued action is required. 

Two of the three labeled red — meaning “inadequate response” — concern a potential gap in polar orbiting weather data because the JPSS system is not “robust.”  The third item with a red flag is understanding and communicating why programs cost so much.

During a telecon today, Young, IRT member Berrien Moore III, and Mary Kicza, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, focused on the potential gap in acquiring weather data from NOAA’s polar orbiting weather satellites as JPSS comes on line, and what the IRT sees as a lack of robustness in the JPSS program.   Young is a retired industry executive and former Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who is often called upon to lead reviews of space programs that go awry.  Moore is Vice President of Weather and Climate Programs at the University of Oklahoma and Director of the National Weather Center located there.

Over the past several years, NOAA officials and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have offered various assessments of the likelihood that a gap may develop in providing polar-orbiting weather data before JPSS-1 is operational.  At a recent hearing, when asked what the likelihood was on a scale of 1-10, GAO’s David Powner said 10.   Kicza said 5, however, a surprise considering previous NOAA statements indicating a much higher possibility.  Kicza explained that the situation had improved now that the NASA/NOAA Suomi-NPP (S-NPP) satellite is operational and took less time than expected to commission.

At today’s briefing, Kizca, Young and Moore avoided using numbers entirely and focused less on the time period between now and the launch of JPSS-1 in 2017 and more on the period after that.  Young said that whatever the number may be, it is too high.  The IRT’s judgment, Young said, is that “there is an unacceptably high probability of a gap” and is “a circumstance that, given the criticality of the data, that the United States should not agree to … put itself in.”

Right now, there are several polar-orbiting satellites of various ages providing weather data.  Young said there are three NOAA satellites that are 12, 8 and 4.5 years old respectively plus S-NPP, launched in 2011.  He added NASA’s 11-year-old Aqua satellite as important to weather forecasting, which all together yields a set of satellites that is “reasonably robust.”  The IRT also found that the GOES system, including the GOES-R series that will begin to launch in 2016, is in good shape.

By contrast, the JPSS system is “fragile” and must be made robust lilke its predecessors and GOES, the IRT concluded.   Only two JPSS satellites are planned and the second is not scheduled for launch until 2022.  That is a long period of time especially if JPSS-1 is lost in a launch failure or fails prematurely on-orbit.   

The IRT wants a gap-filler satellite that would carry the two most critically needed instruments — the Advanced Technology Microwave Sensor (ATMS) and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS).   It calls for NOAA to contract immediately to buy a minimum of three of each of those sensors from the current developers, with the first units available by 2017.  They could be placed aboard a comparatively small spacecraft that could be built in just 2-3 years, the report says, adding:  “Ideally, a gap filler would be available to launch before S-NPP reached the end of its mission life and would cover a potential gap from a JPSS-1 launch or early spacecraft failure.”

A gap filler is just a “band aid,” Young said, arguing that a longer term solution is needed to make the system robust.  Specifically, the IRT wants the next three JPSS satellites, JPSS-2, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, to be put under contract together as “an integrated program.”  Buying them one-at-a-time as currently planned is “inefficient, expensive and not consistent with a robust program,” according to the report.   The IRT defines a “robust” system as one where it takes “two failures to have a gap.”

Getting a gap-filler underway and changing the JPSS procurement strategy to multiple satellites are both “urgent,” Young said today, adding that the IRT understands there are many steps that must be taken, but “we are saying it’s urgent and all elements of the decision process should treat it as urgent.”  Moore said that the gap-filler is “not a very challenging spacecraft to build.  We just need to get the two instruments under contract and … put them on a free-flyer.”

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