'Catastrophic' Gap Looms In Weather Satellite Data, Panel Warns

Andrew Freedman
Published: November 15, 2013

NASA/Suomi NPP/Norman Kuring

The Suomi NPP satellite, the newest polar-orbiting satellite in the U.S. fleet, can track ocean chlorophyll concentrations. The purple and blue colors represent lower chlorophyll concentrations, while the oranges and reds represent higher concentrations. These differences in color indicate areas with lesser or greater amounts of phytoplankton in the ocean.

Unless it acts quickly, the U.S. faces the likelihood of a "catastrophic" reduction in weather and climate data starting in 2016, resulting in less reliable weather and climate forecasts, a federally-commissioned review panel said on Thursday.

The review team, which was comprised of veterans of the weather, space, and aerospace industries, found that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made progress fixing major problems in its satellite programs since the last outside review was completed in 2012, but that the agency has not done enough to mitigate the impacts of a satellite data gap.

To reduce the risk of a data gap from polar-orbiting satellites, which provide the vast majority of data that is fed into computer models used for weather forecasting, the team recommended that NOAA quickly start work on a new “gap-filling” satellite that could be used as a band aid to ensure that crucial weather and climate data keeps flowing.


Artistic rendering of the first JPSS satellite.

Polar-orbiting satellites continuously scan the planet from north to south, and instruments aboard these satellites, such as atmospheric sounders, provide data on atmospheric winds and moisture.

This data is then fed into computer models that meteorologists use for making weather forecasts. The data from the polar-orbiting satellites is particularly useful for making medium-range predictions out to about seven days in advance.

NOAA has warned that, starting in about 2016, there will be at least a year-long gap between the newest polar orbiting satellite’s design lifetime and the scheduled launch date of its replacement.

That would mean the U.S. would be reliant on just one polar-orbiting satellite, rather than the two that have long been in service. NOAA ran up billions in cost overruns for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, and delays and a lack of funding from Congress have put that program, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), years behind schedule.

NOAA and international forecasting agencies have warned that such a data gap could significantly erode the agency’s ability to provide advanced notice of significant weather events.

The review team found an “unacceptably high probability of a gap in JPSS data,” said A. Thomas Young, the chairman of the review team and former president of Martin Marietta Corporation.

Young refused to specify the odds of a gap when speaking with reporters on a conference call on Thursday. “The numbers in my mind are not really significant,“ Young said. “You should never be dependent upon a single stream system where you’re one failure away” from losing crucial data of national importance, he said.

The 'gap-filler'

Like a driver who replaces a flat tire with a spare that has a limited range, the IRT recommended that NOAA mitigate the impacts of a satellite gap by procuring more atmospheric sounding instruments, which are considered critical to weather forecasting, and mounting two of them on a new gap-filling satellite.

The “gap-filler” satellite would be smaller and far less costly than any of the JPSS satellites, and could be placed into Low Earth Orbit in 3 years or less, if the project begins immediately, the IRT found.

It would be intended to cover the period between the end of the design lifetime of the newest polar-orbiting satellite, known as the Suomi-NPP satellite, and the first JPSS spacecraft, scheduled to launch in late 2017 at the earliest.

“... With an expedited decision and procurement process, a gap-filler mission could protect against a gap before the end of 2017,” the IRT report said. “This plan… moves towards the objective of being two failures away” from a polar satellite data gap, the report said.

Subsequent atmospheric sounding sensors, the review team advised, should be purchased and developed starting immediately, to be ready for installation on later JPSS satellites, such as JPSS-2, which is scheduled to launch in 2021.

Skybox Imaging

The Skybox-1 satellite is an example of the emerging private sector satellites designed for environmental monitoring. It is about the size of a minifridge, far smaller than the house-sized Earth imaging satellites it is set to compete with. Here it undergoes final testing in Mountain View, Calif.

A gap-filler satellite would require new appropriations from Congress, where lawmakers have repeatedly chastised NOAA for its cost overruns and delays, and there is more talk of fiscal restraint than spending increases.

“We beieve it is urgent” to procure a gap-filler, despite the harsh fiscal climate on Capitol Hill, Young said. “It’s urgent and all elements of the decision process should treat it as urgent.”

Research from NOAA and international agencies has found that a gap in satellite coverage would make routine weather forecasts less reliable.

For example, experiments done using the forecast for Hurricane Sandy showed that forecast models would have shown the storm curving out to sea and missing the U.S., rather than taking its devastating hook to the west, into the New Jersey coast.

That storm claimed 117 lives and caused at least $65 billion in damage. Accurate forecasts made several days in advance of the storm’s landfall were widely credited for saving lives.

“The absence of JPSS data due to a gap could prove catastrophic,” Young said.

A number of private satellite firms are planning to launch satellites into Low Earth Orbit that could augment or replace some of federal environmental satellite programs, and Congress has shown interest in encouraging, if not outright forcing, NOAA to purchase data from the private sector as part of its operations.

NOAA’s Mary Kicza, assistant administrator for NOAA's Satellite and Information Service, told reporters that the agency is looking at private sector solutions, but that no decisions have been made about using private companies to address the polar-orbiting data gap or issues with the agency’s geostationary satellites, which orbit above a fixed point on the planet. She said NOAA takes the review team's recommendations "very seriously."

Young said a private sector solution to the polar-orbiting satellite gap is “Probably not a constructive solution to the problem that we’re dealing with here.”

There are also other more controversial options available to the U.S. in case the gap-filler satellite is not approved. In a controversial finding, a separate report commissioned by NOAA found that the agency's best alternative would be to turn to China for help. The report said NOAA’s “silver bullet” solution would be for it to purchase data from China’s polar-orbiting satellites to compensate for lost U.S. data.

China plans to launch its next generation of polar-orbiting satellites later this year and in 2014, ahead of the U.S. new polar-orbiting satellites, and the capabilities of the Chinese satellites are expected to be comparable to U.S. spacecraft, the study said.

The China option met with a harsh reception on Capitol Hill. At a House committee hearing on the weather and satellite program on Sept. 19,  lawmakers from both parties sharply criticized NOAA for considering buying data from the Chinese government in light of cyber-security concerns and ties between the Chinese space industry and that country’s military.

But the status quo is also unsatisfactory, the review team found. Young said the current timeline for the JPSS program will likely leave the country one failure away from a gap, which the IRT found is an “unacceptable position to be in for a system for which the data is so critical.”

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