SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has listed the task of mitigating anticipated gaps in weather satellite data as one of the top priorities requiring the attention of Congress and the executive branch.

“Potential gaps in weather satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings — including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges and floods — will be less accurate and timely,” according to GAO’s High Risk Series update released Feb. 14. “A number of decisions are needed to ensure contingency and continuity plans can be implemented effectively.”

The High Risk Series is a report GAO issues every two years to identify government operations vulnerable “to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency or effectiveness challenges.” The looming satellite data gap was one of only two new issues out of 30 listed in the 275-page report.

The likelihood of a significant gap in weather satellite data has been highlighted in recent reports published by GAO, the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General and an independent panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin executive Thomas Young. Those reports warned that the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fleet of polar-orbiting satellites is likely to stop functioning a year or more before the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)-1 can begin providing data for weather and climate forecasts.

NOAA’s most recent polar-orbiting satellites, NOAA-19 and Suomi NPP, were launched in 2009 and 2011, respectively. The instruments on NOAA-19 were designed to last at least three years. NPP’s sensors were designed for a five-year lifespan. Technical problems could cause NPP instruments to fail in three years, according to a 2011 report by NASA’s inspector general. If that happens, NOAA may experience years without a functioning polar-orbiting weather satellite because JPSS-1 is scheduled to launch in early 2017 and undergo six to 12-months of on-orbit testing. GAO warned the gap could last between 17 to 53 months. The 53-month gap would occur if NPP failed prematurely and JPSS-1 launched a year behind schedule.

GAO also warned of potential gaps in coverage if NOAA geostationary spacecraft fail before their successors can take over. To ensure that its geostationary satellites continually provide imagery for weather forecasts, NOAA maintains two spacecraft and one spare in orbit. The oldest satellite in NOAA’s current geostationary fleet, GOES-13, is expected to provide data until April 2015, according to GAO. The first satellite in the next-generation GOES-R constellation is scheduled to launch in October 2015. Program managers said, however, there is only a 48 percent chance the first GOES-R satellite will launch on schedule, according to GAO. After launch, NOAA plans to spend six months preparing the new satellite for its operational role.

“As a result, there could be a year or more during which time a backup satellite would not be available,” which could pose problems if one of the operational GOES satellites experiences technical problems, the GAO report said. In December 2008 and September 2012, NOAA moved its spare satellite into an operational role due to problems with another geostationary spacecraft.

Sequestration Aggravation

Pending across-the-board spending cuts could cause further delays in NOAA’s effort to revitalize its weather satellite constellations, including a two- to three-year launch delay for the first two GOES-R satellites, currently scheduled to fly in 2015 and 2017, Rebecca Blank, acting Commerce Department secretary said Feb. 8 in a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings.”

Like NOAA, the Defense Department faces challenges in maintaining continuity in its weather satellite campaigns, according to GAO. The High Risk Series report warned of the serious consequences of delays or technical problems in Defense Department weather satellite programs. The Defense Department, the European Meteorological Satellite Organization and NOAA share the job of gathering data from polar-orbiting satellites. Pentagon spacecraft travel in the early morning orbit. European satellites cross the equator mid-morning and NOAA satellites operate in an afternoon orbit.

The Defense Department’s weather satellite programs have faced a number of setbacks, including a congressional decision in 2011 to halt work on the next-generation Defense Weather Satellite System. Since then, Pentagon officials have conducted studies to determine the best way to fulfill demands for weather forecasting and prepared to launch one legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft in 2014 and another in 2020. That plan carries risks, GAO said.

“The two remaining DMSP satellites may not work as intended since they were built in the late 1990s and will be quite old by the time they are launched,” the GAO report said. “If the satellites do not perform as expected, a data gap in the early morning orbit could occur as early as 2014.”

To address these problems, “NOAA continues to develop mitigation plans for any potential gap, which will be re-assessed on a biannual basis to account for new developments as they occur,” NOAA spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said Feb. 14 in an emailed response to questions. “Our top priority is ensuring NOAA’s National Weather Service is able to maintain the accuracy and timeliness of its forecasts and warnings.”

In its report, GAO noted those mitigation plans but called on NOAA to take additional action, including simulating the steps officials would need to take to obtain alternative sources of weather data and preparing its data customers to use the alternative data sources.

The second new, high-risk issue identified in the GAO report was the task of limiting the cost to the federal government of managing climate change risks. That goal also could be undermined by a dearth of weather satellite data, GAO said. State and local governments rely on timely temperature and precipitation data to assist them in prioritizing and supervising billions of dollars spent annually on federal infrastructure projects, including projects designed to help communities adapt to changing climate conditions. Gaps in weather satellite coverage would make it more difficult for state and local agencies to obtain that information, the report said.



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Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...