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Watchdog agency warns of dangerous weather data gap

Posted: June 30, 2012

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Forecasters will almost certainly face gaps in weather data before NOAA's next-generation polar-orbiting satellites begin launching in 2017, government officials told Congress this week.

This composite image of Earth was taken from multiple swaths from the Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite on the Suomi NPP weather satellite. Credit: NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring
Mounting costs and satellite development delays will likely mean NOAA's next polar-orbiting weather satellite will launch after its current operational spacecraft is retired, officials said.

Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA's deputy administrator, said studies show weather prediction would suffer without complete atmospheric data collected by satellites in polar orbit.

When polar orbit data were not used in forecasting the February 2010 winter storm - dubbed "Snowmaggedon" - that hit the mid-Atlantic states, computer models predicted a less intense storm slightly further east of where the system eventually dumped snowfall.

U.S. forecasters use polar orbit data in computer models to predict weather five-to-ten days in advance. Weather satellites in polar orbit circle Earth about 14 times each day, and the planet spins underneath the spacecraft, giving its instruments a global picture of climate every 24 hours.

NOAA obtains data from U.S. military weather satellites, which operate in an orbit passing over Earth in the early morning. The U.S. government also has a data-sharing arrangement with the European weather satellite agency, which has a spacecraft flying in an afternoon orbit.

NOAA is responsible for the mid-morning orbit.

Delays in launching NOAA's new weather satellites have stemmed from administrative mismanagement and inadequate budgets, according to a watchdog agency.

The Suomi NPP weather satellite launched in October 2011 to serve as a bridge between NOAA's legacy polar-orbiting observatories and the new generation of spacecraft called the Joint Polar Satellite System.

But the launch came more than five years late, forcing Suomi NPP into an operational role as the next in a series of weather satellites feeding data into prediction models used by forecasters.

Suomi NPP was conceived as a research and technology demonstration mission to prove out instruments for next-generation polar-orbiting weather platforms.

Development snags delayed the start of the follow-on missions, thrusting Suomi NPP into a crucial role as a stopgap between older polar-orbiting observatories and the first JPSS satellite.

Meteorologists began using data from Suomi NPP satellite in operational weather models in May, making the joint NOAA/NASA mission a key contributor to public and private forecasts in the United States.

Even if the Suomi NPP satellite fulfills its planned five-year service life, there will be a 17-month gap between its retirement and when the JPSS 1 satellite will become operational in 2018, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

"This is a best-case scenario," said David Powner, director of GAO's information technology management issues division.

Artist's concept of the Suomi NPP satellite, which is almost identical to the JPSS 1 spacecraft due for launch in 2017. Credit: NOAA
Powner and representatives from NOAA and NASA on Wednesday testified to a joint hearing the House Science Committee's panels on investigations and oversight and energy and environment.

The GAO report outlined scenarios in which the data gap could last more than four years. NOAA officials have expressed concerns over workmanship issues which could limit the lifetime of some of Suomi NPP's five science instruments, and the targeted March 2017 launch of JPSS 1 is uncertain.

JPSS was born out of the dissolution of the NPOESS program, which combined the U.S. government's civil and military weather satellites into a single system. But mounting delays and cost growth led to a 2010 decision to return responsibility for polar-orbiting weather satellites to NOAA and the U.S. Air Force.

JPSS received less than half of the funding NOAA requested for the program in fiscal year 2011, leading to another launch delay to March 2017 for the system's first satellite, which will be a clone of Suomi NPP.

NOAA decided to remove some instruments from the JPSS 1 spacecraft to reduce its cost and keep it on schedule, and all of the first satellite's instruments are more than 60 percent complete.

Officials plan to fly the instruments removed from the JPSS satellites on other spacecraft owned by commercial or government entities.

"Despite all this progress, we still face a gap in coverage," Sullivan said.

According to Sullivan, NOAA's prime strategy to deal with the potential data gap is to exploit any remaining life out of Suomi NPP and its sensors after their designed five-year mission.

NOAA spent $4.3 billion on the NPOESS program before its cancellation, and the agency has committed to completing the JPSS program for $12.9 billion, including two dedicated satellites, instruments, launch vehicles, and operations.