SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. government’s ability to provide accurate forecasts of severe weather is at risk due to potential problems facing efforts to launch new polar-orbiting satellites in both the United States and Europe, a U.S. government official told lawmakers.

David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, cited potential problems with weather satellite constellations planned by U.S. civilian and military agencies and also by the European Meteorological Satellite Organization, or Eumetsat.

The U.S. Defense Department, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Eumetsat share data from their respective polar-orbiting satellites to provide round-the-clock coverage. The Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) gathers data in the so-called early morning orbit; Eumetsat’s Metop constellation covers the mid-morning orbit; and NOAA covers the afternoon orbit using the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite, launched in October. Suomi will be succeeded by the first satellite in the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) constellation currently set for launch in March 2017.

“We continue to be concerned about the afternoon orbit and highlight a potential 17-month gap if [Suomi] lasts five years and JPSS hits its launch date,” Powner said during a joint hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on investigations and subcommittee on energy and environment. “In our opinion this is a best-case scenario.”

If there is a gap in coverage from its own satellites, NOAA plans to rely on observations from constellations flown by the U.S. Air Force and Eumetsat. However, both of those programs face uncertainty.

Congress last year directed the Air Force to cancel its planned Defense Weather Satellite System, leaving the service reliant on two DMSP satellites built in the 1990s while it drafts plans for a next-generation system. “There are considerable challenges in ensuring that the new [Defense Department] program is in place and integrated with existing ground systems and data networks in time to avoid a gap in this orbit,” Powner said in written testimony submitted in a report, “Environmental Satellites: Focused Attention Needed to Mitigate Program Risks.”

DMSP-19 is slated to launch between October 2013 and September 2014, followed by DMSP-20 as needed. If those satellites perform well, with each providing data for six years, there is a chance that a future military weather constellation would not be needed until 2026, according to Powner’s report. He cautioned, however, that the aging DMSP spacecraft may not be reliable.

“If they do not perform well, the Defense Department could be facing a satellite data gap in the early morning orbit as early as 2014,” he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. budget woes have complicated Eumetsat’s plans for a follow-on system to its current Metop satellites, which are scheduled to provide observations through October 2021. NOAA originally planned to provide three sensors for the successor system, known as the Eumetsat Polar System-2nd Generation. However, NOAA informed Eumetsat in December that it would be unable to furnish the sensors because of budget constraints.

“Due to the uncertainty surrounding the program, there is a chance that the first European follow-on satellite will not be ready in time to replace the final Metop satellite at the end of its expected life,” Powner said. “In that case, this orbit, too, would be in jeopardy.”

To prevent gaps in coverage, Powner said, NOAA and NASA should make every effort to keep JPSS on schedule.

NOAA Deputy Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said agency officials are focused on that goal. In addition, NOAA officials are renewing and confirming commitments with international organizations to provide mutual backup services and making sure the U.S. agency is prepared to use data from various sensors. “We’ve begun the efforts to look at what technical changes would be needed if we take data streams in that we don’t commonly use,” Sullivan said.

Witnesses also briefed legislators on efforts to bring JPSS estimated cost back to within the program’s $12.9 billion cost cap. When individual elements of the JPSS program are tallied, the total amounts to $14.6 billion.

“To its credit, NOAA has recently made some tough decisions to address this funding gap,” Powner said. NOAA plans to send three sensors into orbit on spacecraft outside the JPSS program using rideshare agreements and to trim JPSS operations and maintenance costs by relying on fewer ground stations, he said.



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Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...