Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites:

Improvements Needed in Continuity Planning and Involvement of Key Users

GAO-10-799: Published: Sep 1, 2010. Publicly Released: Oct 1, 2010.

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The Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with the aid of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is to procure the next generation of geostationary operational environmental satellites, called Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series. The GOES-R series is to replace the current series of satellites, which will likely begin to reach the end of their useful lives in approximately 2015. This new series is considered critical to the United States' ability to maintain the continuity of data required for weather forecasting through the year 2028. GAO was asked to (1) determine the status of the GOES-R acquisition; (2) evaluate whether NOAA has established adequate contingency plans in the event of delays; and (3) assess NOAA's efforts to identify GOES data users, prioritize their data needs, and communicate with them about the program's status. To do so, GAO analyzed contractor and program data and interviewed officials from NOAA, NASA, and other federal agencies that rely on GOES data.

NOAA has made progress on the GOES-R acquisition, but key instruments have experienced challenges and important milestones have been delayed. The GOES-R program awarded key contracts for its flight and ground projects, and these are in development. However, two instruments have experienced technical issues that led to contract cost increases, and significant work remains on other development efforts. In addition, since 2006, the launch dates of the first two satellites in the series have been delayed by about 3 years. As a result, NOAA may not be able to meet its policy of having a backup satellite in orbit at all times, which could lead to a gap in coverage if GOES-14 or GOES-15 fails prematurely. Even though there may be a gap in backup coverage, NOAA has not established adequate continuity plans for its geostationary satellites. To its credit, NOAA has established a policy to always have a backup satellite available and high-level plans if that policy is not met. Specifically, in the event of a satellite failure with no backup available, NOAA plans to reduce to a single satellite and, if available, rely on a satellite from an international partner. However, NOAA does not have plans that include processes, procedures, and resources needed to transition to a single or an international satellite. Without such plans, NOAA faces an increased risk that users will lose access to critical data. While NOAA has identified GOES data users and involved internal users in developing and prioritizing the GOES-R requirements, it has not adequately involved other federal users that rely on GOES data. Specifically, NOAA's processes for developing and prioritizing satellite requirements do not include documented input from other federal agencies. Further, since 2006, the GOES-R program has undergone significant changes (such as the removal of certain satellite data products), but these have not been communicated to federal agencies. Until improvements are made in NOAA's processes for involving key federal users, these users may not be able to meet mission requirements. GAO is recommending that NOAA address weaknesses in its continuity plans and improve its processes for involving other federal agencies. In commenting on a draft of this report, the Secretary of Commerce agreed with GAO's recommendations and identified plans for implementing them.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to maintain geostationary satellites continuity and improve efforts to involve key GOES data users, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to establish processes for satellite data requirements definition and prioritization to include documented input from external federal agencies that rely on GOES data on future satellite acquisitions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and stated that it plans to develop a process to define and prioritize requirements for satellite data from future geostationary operational environmental satellites. In its response, NOAA stated that it plans to implement a formal requirements definition phase with input from other federal agencies in the period of 2014-2016. As of 2012, no comprehensive prioritization efforts have been put in place at NOAA. Furthermore, a task force related to the Consolidated Operation Requirements List (CORL) group, which was mentioned in NOAA's 60-day response as a main source of its requirements, stated that while NOAA has established a process capable of prioritization, it has yet to coordinate with all stakeholders to establish a list of observational requirements. It also stated that prioritization is unclear for requirements in several key areas. We will continue to monitor NOAA's progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to maintain geostationary satellites continuity and improve efforts to involve key GOES data users, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to develop and document continuity plans for the operation of geostationary satellites that include the implementation procedures, resources, staff roles, and timetables needed to transition to a single satellite, an international satellite, or other solution.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and has since developed a continuity plan that generally includes these elements. Specifically, NOAA's plan identifies steps it would take in transitioning to a single or international satellite, the amount of time this transition would take, roles of product area leads, and resources such as imaging product schedules, disk imagery frequency, and staff to execute the changes.

    Recommendation: To improve NOAA's ability to maintain geostationary satellites continuity and improve efforts to involve key GOES data users, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to establish and implement processes to notify these agencies of GOES-R program status and changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation. In February 2012, the agency developed a communications plan for the GOES-R program that described how external stakeholders would be notified of the program's progress, status changes, and other relevant activities. In addition, the GOES-R System Program Director provided annual briefings to the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology in October 2010 and November 2011 to communicate to federal GOES data users important program changes and status.

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