WASHINGTON — The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned lawmakers March 1 that it is “highly likely” the United States will see a gap in its polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage later this decade because of congressional failure to enact a 2011 budget.

NOAA was counting on Congress to nearly triple this year’s budget for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) to $1 billion in order to keep the multisatellite project on track to start launching in 2014.

A budget impasse between House Republicans and Senate Democrats has frozen JPSS spending at $382 million, the amount lawmakers appropriated for 2010.

Congress was warned in February that the constrained funding would cause the launch of JPSS-1 to slip a year or more.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that JPSS needs at least $910 million this year “to keep this program under way.”

“That is not an insignificant amount,” Lubchenco said during the March 10 hearing on NOAA’s budget. “I fully appreciate what a large number that is. But the consequences of not having it are very severe, and for every dollar we do not spend this year on this program, it will cost us three to five dollars in the future to build this program back up. If we don’t have those resources this year, we terminate contracts, we lose people that have the expertise, and the consequences of that will not be pretty.”

Unless Congress provides more money for JPSS this year and approves NOAA’s $1.06 billion request for the program for 2012, the nation will face a prolonged period during which severe storm tracking capabilities are reduced, Lubchenco said.

The JPSS program was created in early 2010 after the White House dismantled the joint military-civilian National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS for short. The first two JPSS spacecraft are being built by NASA on behalf of NOAA and will feature instruments that were developed under the program it replaced.

The United States plans to launch in October a polar-orbiting weather satellite known as the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) projected to remain in service through 2016. While NOAA had hoped to launch JPSS in 2014 to achieve a multiyear overlap with NPP, officials are now bracing for the possibility of a coverage gap in 2017 if NPP expires before JPSS completes its on-orbit testing.

Continued JPP funding woes threaten to exacerbate any gap.

“Additional delays because of lack of resources will delay that program even further, and what that means is down the road we will inevitably have a gap where we will not have the capability to do severe storm warnings as we do today,” Lubchenco warned lawmakers. “It is highly likely we will have a gap, and the longer we wait, the longer that gap gets.”

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-Texas) agreed the United States needs the weather forecasting capabilities that will be provided by JPSS and the next-generation geostationary weather satellites NOAA is developing. But given the nation’s financial situation, he said, some of the other satellite programs NOAA seeks to fund are not essential. Hall specifically mentioned the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite NOAA is building in conjunction with Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization. NOAA requested $53 million for the program in 2012.

“If you’re prioritizing missions in this very difficult economy, why are you spending resources on Jason-3, which is a satellite that measures sea level rise and [makes] climate change observation[s], while at the same time warning Congress that if we do not spend money on weather satellites there will be a data gap?” he asked Lubchenco.

She said the Jason-3 mission will provide vital planning information to communities along U.S. coastal regions, and that its shared expense with other nations makes it a good value. NOAA prioritized its 2012 budget request and left out other satellite programs that it would like to have, Lubchenco said.