Environmental Satellites:

Strategy Needed to Sustain Critical Climate and Space Weather Measurements

GAO-10-456: Published: Apr 27, 2010. Publicly Released: May 27, 2010.

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Environmental satellites provide data on the earth and its space environment that are used for forecasting the weather, measuring variations in climate over time, and predicting space weather. In planning for the next generation of these satellites, federal agencies originally sought to fulfill weather, climate, and space weather requirements. However, in 2006, federal agencies restructured two key satellite acquisitions, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series (GOES-R). This involved removing key climate and space weather instruments. GAO was asked to (1) assess plans for restoring the capabilities that were removed from the two key satellite acquisitions, (2) evaluate federal efforts to establish a strategy for the long-term provision of satellite-provided climate data, and (3) evaluate federal efforts to establish a strategy for the longterm provision of satellite-provided space weather data. To do so, GAO analyzed agency plans and reports.

After key climate and space weather instruments were removed from the NPOESS and GOES-R programs in 2006, federal agencies decided to restore selected capabilities in the near term. However, neither the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) nor the Department of Defense (DOD) has established plans to restore the full set of NPOESS capabilities over the life of the program. Further, NOAA has not made any plans to restore the advanced climate capabilities of the instrument that was removed from GOES-R. Expected gaps in coverage for the instruments that were removed range from 1 to 11 years, and begin as soon as 2015. Until these capabilities are in place, the agencies will not be able to provide key environmental data that are important for sustaining climate and space weather measurements. For over a decade, federal agencies and the climate community have clamored for a national interagency strategy to coordinate agency priorities, budgets, and schedules for environmental satellite observations over the long-term-- and the governance structure to implement that strategy. In mid-2009, a White House-sponsored interagency working group drafted a report that identifies and prioritizes near-term opportunities for environmental observations; however, the plan has not been approved by key entities within the Executive Office of the President and there is no schedule for finalizing it. In addition, the report does not address costs, schedules, or the long-term provision of satellite data, and there is no process or time frame for implementing it. Without a strategy for continuing environmental measurements over the coming decades and a means for implementing it, agencies will continue to independently pursue their immediate priorities on an ad hoc basis, the economic benefits of a coordinated approach to investments in earth observation may be lost, and our nation's ability to understand climate change may be limited. While federal agencies have taken steps to plan for continued space weather observations in the near-term, they lack a strategy for the long-term provision of space weather data. NOAA and DOD plan to replace aging satellites, and an interagency space weather program drafted two reports on how to mitigate the loss of key satellites and instruments. These reports were submitted to the Executive Office of the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the fall of 2009. However, OSTP has no schedule for approving or releasing the reports. Until OSTP approves and releases the reports, it will not be clear whether the reports provide a strategy to ensure the long-term provision of space weather data--or whether the current efforts are simply attempts to ensure short-term data continuity. Without a comprehensive longterm strategy for the provision of space weather data, agencies may make ad hoc decisions to ensure continuity in the near term and risk making inefficient investment decisions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Executive Office entities issued reports that cover all three topics in our recommendation. Specifically, the Executive Office of the President's National Science and Technology Council, which is a chaired by the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, released the National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations in April 2013. The strategy identifies societal benefit areas and a process to evaluate earth observing systems based on information products and data streams supported in those areas. Further, in July 2014, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, part of the Executive Office of the President, issued the National Plan for Civil Earth Observation. It identifies near-term priorities and opportunities for earth observation systems and is to be updated every three years. Regarding our second and third recommendations, in April 2013 the Office of the Federal Coordinator of Meteorological Services and Supporting Research, through the National Space Weather Program Council, released the Report on Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade in April 2013. The space weather report describes how to address the loss of the Advanced Composition Explorer capabilities and incorporates current National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Department of Defense requirements for space weather observations over the next 10 years. Further, the National Plan for Civil Earth Observations also outlines agency responsibility concerning certain space weather observations.

    Recommendation: In order to effectively address our country's need for sustained environmental observations, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, in collaboration with key Executive Office of the President entities (including the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Science and Technology Council), should establish a firm deadline for the completion and release of three key reports on environmental observations: (1) U.S. Group on Earth Observations (USGEO) report on near-term priorities and opportunities in earth observations, called the Strategic Assessment Report; (2) The National Space Weather Program's report on how to address the loss of the Advanced Composition Explorer capabilities; and (3) The National Space Weather Program's report on how to address the space weather capabilities that were removed from the NPOESS program.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Science and Technology Policy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Executive Office of the President's National Science and Technology Council, which is chaired by the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, released the National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations in April 2013. This strategy establishes a 3-year assessment and planning framework organized by major areas of societal benefit and codifies guidelines for federal agencies concerning the effective management of earth observation data. Also, the strategy describes general agency roles and responsibilities for providing satellite observations and the approach for routine assessment, improved data management, and coordinated planning. Subsequently, in July 2014, the White House released the National Plan for Civil Earth Observations, which further addresses agency roles and responsibilities in earth observations, prioritizes observations, and provides an impact analysis that is to be an input to future budget deliberations. The plan is to be updated every three years.

    Recommendation: In order to effectively address our country's need for sustained environmental observations, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, in collaboration with key Executive Office of the President entities (including the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Science and Technology Council), should direct USGEO to establish an interagency strategy to address the longterm provision of environmental observations from satellites that includes costs and schedules for the satellites, as well as a plan for the relevant agencies' future budgets.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Science and Technology Policy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Executive Office of the President's National Science and Technology Council, which is a chaired by the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, released the National Strategy for Civil Earth Observations in April 2013. This strategy establishes a 3-year assessment and planning framework organized by major areas of societal benefit and codifies guidelines for federal agencies concerning the effective management of earth observation data. Also, the strategy describes general agency roles and responsibilities for providing satellite observations and the approach for routine assessment, improved data management, and coordinated planning. In addition, the strategy describes a separate plan that is intended to further address agency roles and responsibilities in earth observations and will take into account known budgetary and programmatic constraints. That plan, called the National Plan for Civil Earth Observations, was released in July 2014.

    Recommendation: In order to effectively address our country's need for sustained environmental observations, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, in collaboration with key Executive Office of the President entities (including the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Science and Technology Council), should establish an ongoing process, with timelines, for obtaining approval of the interagency strategy and aligning it with agency plans and annual budgets.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Science and Technology Policy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on its progress in addressing GAO's recommendations in September 2011, the Office and Science and Technology Policy reported that it had requested that the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology lead the development and coordination of an interagency assessment of the current and future capabilities needed for space weather forecasting activities with assistance from the National Space Weather Program Council. In April 2013, the Office of the Federal Coordinator of Meteorological Services and Supporting Research and the National Space Weather Program Council, as directed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, released the Report on Space Weather Observing Systems: Current Capabilities and Requirements for the Next Decade. The report (a) details the current data sources, both space- and ground-based, that are necessary for space weather forecasting; and (b) details the space- and ground-based systems that need to be maintained, replaced, and upgraded to gather data necessary for space weather forecasting for the next 10 years. The report also includes an assessment of current and planned space weather observing systems' capabilities and their ability to meet National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Department of Defense requirements. The report categorizes space weather observations into six domains of the space environment. Additionally, the report includes best and worst case scenarios for the loss of existing and planned systems as well as their impact on five key space weather phenomena.

    Recommendation: In order to effectively address our country's need for sustained environmental observations, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, in collaboration with key Executive Office of the President entities (including the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the National Science and Technology Council), should direct the National Space Weather Program Council to establish an interagency strategy for the long-term provision of space weather observations.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Science and Technology Policy

 

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