GAO Forecasts NOAA Weather Satellite Delays

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to face technical issues, delays, cost growth and the potential for gaps in coverage on its two primary weather satellite systems, according to a pair of Government Accountability Office reports.

NOAA has made progress on both its polar and geostationary-orbiting satellite programs, but also is juggling multiple risks, the GAO said.

For example, NOAA has managed to reduce an anticipated gap in coverage from its Joint Polar Satellite System from 18 to three months. But that gap could wind up being substantially longer for reasons that include uncertainty over the time needed for on-orbit validation and a higher probably of a destructive orbital impact to its current polar asset, the Suomi NPP satellite, the study.

On November 19, 2014 Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. held the JPSS-1 Satellite Integration Readiness Review for the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument which led to a green light to proceed to instrument integration. Credit: Ball Aerospace
On November 19, 2014 Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. held the JPSS-1 Satellite Integration Readiness Review for the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument which led to a green light to proceed to instrument integration. Credit: Ball Aerospace

Suomi, built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, was launched in October 2011 with an expected design life of five years. The first JPSS satellite, also built by Ball, is slated for launch no later than March 2017.

The report dubbed “Polar Satellites: NOAA Needs To Prepare for Near-term Data Gaps” and re-released Jan. 16 — it was originally issued in December — also says NOAA needs to get a better handle on the pros and cons of various alternatives for mitigating the impacts of a data gap.

The report also found that since July 2013, the projected cost of the $11.3 billion JPSS program has increased 2 percent, or $222 million, half of which is attributable to three main sensors: the Cross Track Infrared Sounder; the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder; and the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite. That rate of cost growth is unsustainable over the long term, the study said.

Meanwhile, NOAA faces risks of additional delays and cost growth on its Geostationary-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (GOES)-R program, the GAO said in a Jan. 15 report. The $11 billion, four-satellite progam already is behind schedule and over-budget, with a first launch scheduled for March 2016.

“Specifically, the program has continued to experience delays in major milestones and cost overruns on key components,” the report said. “Also, in order to meet the planned launch date, the program has deferred some planned functionality until after launch, and program officials acknowledge that they may defer more.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is the GOES-R prime contractor.

The report, “Geostationary Weather Satellites: Launch Date Nears, but Remaining Schedule Risks Need to be Addressed,” said NOAA has delayed a series of GOES-R tests and milestones by five to 17 months since April 2012. In one example, a ground antenna site experienced power outages on 10 separate occasions due to issues with its air conditioning system, which delayed testing.

Lockheed Martin  mated together the large system and propulsion modules of the first GOES-R series weather satellite at the company’s Denver facilities in late 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin
Lockheed Martin mated together the large system and propulsion modules of the first GOES-R series weather satellite at the company’s Denver facilities in late 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin

“The program is now reaching a point where additional delays in starting the end-to-end tests could begin to adversely affect its schedule,” the congressional watchdog agency said. “Recently, a NOAA review board reported that moving all of the end-to-end and data operations tests further back into 2015 would cause a situation where too much testing would need to occur at once.”

As things currently stand, the first of the new satellites, GOES-R, likely will not have an on-orbit backup for its first year of operation, the report said.

“This means that if an operational satellite experiences a problem, there could be a gap in GOES coverage,” the report said.

While NOAA has improved its plan to mitigate the gap, the strategy does not address the possibility of launch delays and has other shortcomings, the report said.