Severe storms over the past year have helped focus attention on the precarious state and future of U.S. weather satellite coverage.

On the civilian side, funding instability — partly due to sequestration — and delays have raised the specter of coverage gaps, both in geostationary- and polar-orbiting satellites. The U.S. military, meanwhile, has yet to settle on an approach to replacing its outdated Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), whose last two satellites are expected to launch in the coming years.

Building weather sensors has long been a bread-and-butter program for ITT Exelis, which has been supplying the main instruments for U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites since the 1960s. Currently, Exelis builds the Cross Track Infrared Sounder now flying on NOAA’s Suomi NPP mission and manifested on the agency’s upcoming Joint Polar Satellite System. The company also supplies the main sensor, called the Advanced Baseline Imager, for NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) R series, slated to start launching next year. 

Exelis also has its eyes on whatever U.S. Air Force program ultimately materializes. The company has a contract to study architecture and low-cost sensor options for the news system.

Having been involved in U.S. weather satellite programs from all sides, first as a congressional staffer, then as a NOAA strategist and legislative liaison and now as an Exelis vice president, Eric Webster has plenty to say on the topic.

Webster spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.

How did we get to the point where a weather satellite gap is expected?

You’ve got old satellites that are aging, new satellites that are coming on line much later, and the potential of budget ups and downs that’s causing potentially even more delays. There are some mitigations NOAA and NASA could do for some of the gaps. But because there isn’t any money available, they’re struggling to fund the current programs at the necessary levels, and it leaves them even more vulnerable with fewer options on how they’re going to fill the gaps.

How does the gap scenario play out?

The goal was always when you launch a satellite you had another one on the ground ready to go. On the geostationary side you’ve always had two operational satellites and one on-orbit spare for severe weather forecasts. There’s a potential to rely on the current satellites much beyond their life expectancy or their design life. If something happens to GOES-R on launch or it gets delayed further, there’s a potential gap. It’s more pronounced on the polar side, because Suomi NPP is likely to have its end of life even before JPSS-1 gets launched. The bigger concern I have is if something happens to JPSS-1 during launch, now your gap is five years.  

If NOAA gets into a situation where it doesn’t have the money for all of the planned instruments on JPSS-2, could Exelis put its Cross Track Infrared Sounder on a smaller bus? 

Yes. That’s all dependent upon funding from Congress. We need a certain amount of funding to deliver in 2017 the instrument for JPSS-2; if they meter out the funding in smaller amounts we can’t deliver until 2019. No amount of money can make up for lost time with procurement of parts and other assemblies. One of our discussions is to ensure we get enough funding early on in the JPSS-2 development to get them those flexible options to be able to maybe pull in that launch date. As of right now, we probably wouldn’t deliver until 2019 for a 2021 launch.  

Does Exelis have backup sensors for the current-generation GOES satellites that could be used in case something goes wrong in the next-generation GOES-R program?

We built a fourth set of instruments [for the current GOES satellites]. The original plan was to have four satellites. NOAA and the Department of Commerce decided to only buy three. The same exact instruments that are flying today are in storage in Fort Wayne, Ind. If there’s a problem with GOES-R, they have those flight hardware sensors in storage. The difference today is we can put them on a commercial communications satellite as a hosted payload and, from the government’s perspective, not have to pay for a bus, a rocket and all those other things. 

Under what scenario might that option come into play?

If you look at the NOAA schedule, GOES-13 is past its design life already, but it should keep going. GOES-14 is expected to replace 13.  NOAA’s plan is to fly it until 2020. They’re going to try to fly it four years beyond its design life. GOES-R goes up and replaces GOES-15 so at one point you probably won’t have a backup spare. What’s the probability? A couple of months ago, about a week after the outbreak of the Oklahoma tornadoes, a micrometeoroid, we believe, hit the GOES-13 spacecraft and all of its instruments turned off. Something jolted the spacecraft and put it into safe mode. But if that micrometeoroid was slightly bigger or hit a solar panel or something, now that satellite’s out.

The first GOES-R launch is behind schedule, right?

Originally it was 2012. The expectation now is they’ll try to launch at the end of 2015 or early 2016 and replace GOES-15. 

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there was a study that examined scenarios under which data from certain satellites were unavailable. What did they find?

They said what if we had a lot less polar data, and the model then showed Sandy veering right instead of veering left. They did some earlier studies looking at the huge snowfall that the Washington area got in 2010 — Snowmageddon. The snowfall prediction was 50 percent off. If they said 30 inches, it was 15 inches or less. Similarly, NOAA did a report, called the Riverside report, and that was specifically to look at what NOAA would do if there were a longer-term gap. What’s interesting about the report is there are some things they can do for the sounding data. On an imagery side, the only real mitigation solution they have is to rely on the Chinese satellite systems. China is launching five weather satellites over the next several years. 

Do you think the U.S. Department of Defense is serious about replacing the DMSP satellites?

By 2019, the last DMSP will reach its end of life. Officially they say they’re going to launch DMSP 20, but I think if you were to ask the engineers and others who understand the instrument and the state that it’s in, they’ll most likely not want to launch that satellite. In my discussion with folks, independent guys and other people in the Air Force, there’s a realization that DMSP is 20 to 24 years old and it’s probably not as capable as they would want given the other options.  

The Defense Department has been studying what they really think their requirements are. I do think they’re serious. The sequestration aspect has really thrown a monkey wrench in it. They’re trying to figure out what’s the least they can do given the current budget scenario.

What are your thoughts on some of the commercial weather ventures like PlanetIQ, which plans to sell atmospheric sounding data derived from GPS signal occultation measurements?

Those are additional measurements that if you ask Louis Uccellini, head of the National Weather Service, he likes those; they really add a lot of value to the forecasting models. The only way to make that commercial enterprise work is if the government is the anchor tenant. I don’t know if there’s a commercial aspect of other sectors willing to pay for that data. We’ve been in discussions with those companies. 

What about GeoMetWatch, which has an agreement with AsiaSat to place a hyperspectral sounding instrument on one of its telecommunications satellites?

The difference there is the data and information are unique. There’s a plausible case potentially for nations to all pony up and not have to buy their own bus and rocket and then share and get those data. I think that one might be a little more viable than the GPS radio occultation.