The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) acknowledged at a hearing today that his agency does
not yet have clear plans to ensure that data from new satellites will be
available for use.

The House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards
held the hearing because NOAA plans to launch new satellites in the next
decade, but has trouble processing the data from its satellites that are
already in orbit. The $6.5 billion National Polar Orbiting Environmental
Satellites System (NPOESS), due to be launched around 2008, will produce
hundreds of times more data than today’s satellites.

When pressed by Subcommittee Members today on how NOAA will address the
challenges posed by the additional data, Administrator Admiral Conrad
Lautenbacher, Jr. could not provide specific details.

The Science Committee had asked the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) to
examine these issues. Linda Koontz, Director of Information Management
Issues at GAO summed up the challenges saying, “Each of the [NOAA and
Department of Defense] processing centers is planning activities to build
its capacity to handle increased volumes of data, but more can be done to
coordinate and define these plans. Unless more is done…the centers could
risk delays in using NPOESS data in operational weather products and

“Given these huge investments and the importance of satellites to so many
aspects of our lives, it is our duty to ensure that the taxpayers are
getting their money’s worth,” said Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers
(R-MI). “But getting our money’s worth is not simply contingent on a
satellite being successfully launched and data being beamed down. The key
factor is being able to use the data.”

Representative Mark Udall (D-CO) added, “NOAA’s investments in satellite
technology have vastly expanded our ability to measure features of the
earth, the oceans, and the atmosphere. Parallel progress in data processing
and management is enabling us to utilize these measurements to improve
weather forecasting and to better understand the global environment. The
good news is we have a lot of data. On the other hand, the bad news is we
have a lot of data. We must ensure that investments in technology and
research to manage information keeps pace with our investments in technology
to gather it.”

“The existing…data management system is designed to accommodate
approximately 2 terabytes (trillion bytes) of data per year. (For context,
the entire Library of Congress holds approximately 25 terabytes of text
information). NPOESS will produce over 200 terabytes per year,” added Dr.
Mark Abbott, Dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at
Oregon State University. “NPOESS will advance our understanding of the
Earth system, but an effective and efficient data management system is
necessary if we are to realize the full potential of NPOESS.”

Hearing testimony and an archived webcast of the hearing can be found at