WASHINGTON — The spending bill passed by Congress Oct. 16 provides the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with temporary flexibility for whatever funding it needs to maintain the launch schedules for two key weather satellite programs.

The continuing resolution, signed into law by President Barack Obama, funds most government programs at the 2013 level, which would be insufficient to keep NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R programs on schedule. However, lawmakers included a provision in the bill that says NOAA’s budget may be changed “up to the rate for operations necessary” to keep both programs on track until the agency receives its 2014 appropriation.

NOAA requested $954 million for work on the next-generation GOES-R satellites in 2014, a $335 million increase intended to help to meet a launch readiness date of early 2016, according to budget documents.

NOAA also is racing to get the JPSS-1 satellite into orbit by late 2017 or early 2018. NOAA requested $824 million for the program in 2014, a nearly $69 million decrease from 2013.

The current Suomi NPP polar-orbiting satellite, conceived as a testbed but thrust into an operational role, launched in 2011. It is not certain that JPSS-1 will make it to orbit and begin observations before Suomi, which was designed to last five years, fails.

Similarly, NOAA, which maintains GOES satellites overlooking the U.S. East and West coasts, could be faced with single-satellite coverage for up to two years if it does not receive the requested funding increase for the GOES-R program in 2014, agency budget documents warn. 

A study released this year said that if the United States cannot launch new polar-orbiting weather satellites in time to prevent a gap in coverage, NOAA should consider plugging data from Chinese satellites into U.S. weather forecasting models.

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...