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FCW : December 2013
The National Oceanic and Atmo- spheric Administration faces a potentially catastrophic gap in satellite coverage around 2016, when its existing polar-orbiting satellite is expected to fail. In the latest effort to mitigate that gap, a federally commis- sioned independent review team has recommended that NOAA begin procur- ing atmospheric sounding instruments immediately and attach them to a "gap- ller" satellite. The gap will occur because the rst of NOAA s next-generation polar satellites --- Joint Polar Satellite System 1 --- will not launch until 2017. Furthermore, if the satellite experiences any launch delays or other operational issues, the gap in data could extend as far as 2021, when JPSS-2 is launched. The cost of the program is pegged at about $11 billion. A gap in satellite coverage would impair U.S. weather forecasts, with particularly dangerous implications for severe weather systems like last year s Hurricane Sandy. Weather forecast- ers relied on data from the satellites to predict Sandy s westward trajectory across the Atlantic nearly a week before the storm made landfall, giving coastal residents ample time to prepare. A checkered past Under the current system, the Euro- pean Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites covers the mid-morning orbit and NOAA s Suomi NPP satellite gathers data during its afternoon orbit. A third satellite oper- ated by the Air Force Space Command s Defense Meteorological Satellite Pro- gram also makes a morning orbit. Data from all three makes up the majority of information used by U.S. and European weather models to produce medium- range weather forecasts. The polar-orbiting satellites also play a role in the United States national secu- rity: The Defense Department uses the data to help position its spy satellites, and its own polar satellites are also aging. The review team s Nov. 14 report is the latest in a series of critiques and rec- ommendations that highlight NOAA s dif- culties. The Government Accountabil- ity Of ce put the JPSS program on its high-risk list this year, and the Commerce Department s Of ce of Inspector General has repeatedly blasted NOAA for project overruns, launch delays and poor man- agement of satellite acquisition programs. Although the JPSS program has gotten good marks, it s not clear that NOAA can make up enough of the lost time. The team has recommended that NOAA buy multiple units of the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder through contracts with current developers, and attach them to a satellite smaller and cheaper than JPSS. "An expedited decision and procure- ment process" could allow NOAA and NASA to launch a gap- ller satellite into low Earth orbit within three years if the process begins immediately, the report states, yet that solution is far from a slam-dunk. Even if NOAA accepts the recommendations --- and Mary Kicza, assistant administrator of NOAA s Sat- ellite and Information Service, said the agency takes them very seriously --- such a gap- ller program would face major hurdles. The Satellite and Information Service spends approximately $2.2 billion a year, but it would require additional appropria- tions from Congress almost immediately to pursue a satellite acquisition that could ll the potential gap. And NOAA s rela- tionship with Congress has been marred by cost overruns and delays dating back to the early 2000s, when NOAA, NASA and DOD spent billions on the ill-fated National Polar-orbiting Operational Envi- ronmental Satellite System. Developed in 2002, NPOESS was sup- posed to replace the government s eet of aging polar-orbiting satellites. But the Obama administration disbanded the program in 2010 because of a series of schedule delays, ballooning costs and management problems, and key respon- sibilities were assigned to the individual agencies. The search for solutions Ironically, the Suomi NPP, the only viable satellite NPOESS produced, was intended as a gap- ller. Launched in 2011, the converted demonstration satellite that is now producing after- noon orbital data for NOAA has some of the same capabilities as its newer December 2013 FCW.COM 21
November 30, 2013