Polar Weather Satellites:

NOAA Identified Ways to Mitigate Data Gaps, but Contingency Plans and Schedules Require Further Attention

GAO-13-676: Published: Sep 11, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made noteworthy progress on the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program by delivering data from its first satellite--the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (S-NPP)--to weather forecasters, completing significant instrument development for the next satellite (called JPSS-1), and reducing the program's life cycle cost estimate from $12.9 billion to $11.3 billion by refocusing on weather products. However, key challenges remain. Specifically, S-NPP has not yet achieved full operational capability because the program is behind schedule in validating the readiness of satellite products. Also, the program does not track whether key users are using its products or if the products meet the users' needs. In addition, issues with the JPSS ground system schedules have delayed the delivery of key system capabilities. Until the program addresses these challenges, it may continue to experience delays in delivering actionable S-NPP data to system users and in meeting JPSS-1 development schedules.

A program's success depends in part on having an integrated master schedule that defines when and how long work will occur and how activities are related to each other; however, the JPSS program office does not yet have a complete integrated master schedule and weaknesses exist in component schedules. Specifically, the program established an integrated master schedule in June 2013 and is reporting a 70 percent confidence level in the JPSS-1 launch date. However, about one-third of the program schedule is missing information needed to establish the sequence in which activities occur. In addition, selected component schedules supporting the JPSS-1 satellite have weaknesses including schedule constraints that have not been justified. Until the program completes its integrated schedule and addresses weaknesses in component schedules, it will lack the information needed to effectively monitor development progress and have less assurance of meeting the planned JPSS-1 launch date.

While NOAA developed a mitigation plan to address a potential 14 to 18 month gap in afternoon polar satellite data in October 2012 and subsequently identified additional alternatives for addressing potential gaps, it has not yet established a comprehensive contingency plan. Specifically, NOAA has not yet revised its mitigation plan to include the new alternatives, and the plan lacks several key elements, such as triggers for when to take key actions and detailed procedures for implementing them. Until NOAA establishes a comprehensive plan, it may not be sufficiently prepared to mitigate anticipated gaps in polar satellite coverage.

Why GAO Did This Study

NOAA established the JPSS program in 2010 to replace aging polar satellites and provide critical environmental data used in forecasting weather and measuring variations in climate. However, program officials anticipate a gap in satellite data between the time that the S-NPP satellite reaches the end of its life and the JPSS-1 satellite becomes operational. Given the criticality of satellite data to weather forecasts, the likelihood of a significant satellite data gap, and the potential impact of a gap on the health and safety of the U.S. population and economy, GAO added this issue to its High Risk List in 2013.

GAO was asked to review the JPSS program because of the importance of polar satellite data. GAO's objectives were to (1) evaluate NOAA's progress in sustaining the continuity of NOAA's polar-orbiting satellite system through S-NPP and JPSS satellites; (2) evaluate the quality of NOAA's program schedule; and (3) assess NOAA's plans to address potential gaps in polar satellite data. To do so, GAO analyzed program management status reports, milestone reviews, and schedule data; examined polar gap contingency plans; and interviewed agency and contractor officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending NOAA develop a mechanism to track the usage of its satellite products, establish a complete integrated master schedule, address weaknesses in component schedules, and address shortfalls in polar satellite gap contingency plans. NOAA concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified steps it is taking to implement them.

For more information, contact Dave Powner at (202) 512-9286 or pownerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA stated that it would create and maintain a master list of JPSS data products which will contain information on product generation, product maturity, users, user readiness, and planned operational dates. Additionally, NOAA stated that JPSS would work with NESDIS to develop a framework for collecting user feedback on the ability of JPSS data products to meet the user's expected needs. These steps are not expected to be completed until later in 2014. We will continue to monitor the agency's progress on these efforts.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to track the extent to which key groups of satellite data users are using S-NPP and JPSS products, and obtain feedback on these products.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA completed an updated integrated master schedule in June 2014. We plan to review the updated integrated master schedule to determine the extent to which it is complete and includes a logically linked sequence of activities.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to establish a complete JPSS program integrated master schedule that includes a logically linked sequence of activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA stated that the JPSS flight and ground projects assessed the shortfalls identified in our report and addressed the shortfalls with an updated integrated master schedule completed for the JPSS-1 mission critical design review in June 2014. We plan to review the updated integrated master schedule and determine the extent to which the ground and flight projects addressed the shortfalls we identified in our report.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to address the shortfalls in the ground system and spacecraft component schedules outlined in this report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA determined that an update to the joint cost and schedule confidence level was not warranted based on a risk assessment that compared previously identified JPSS program risks to an updated integrated master schedule and an assessment by the program's standing review board that resulted in improved confidence for JPSS-1. We plan to review NOAA's efforts to update its integrated master schedule, address shortfalls in component schedules, and update the program's risk assessment as well as the standing review board's assessment to determine whether an update to the joint cost and schedule confidence level may be warranted and justified.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to, after completing the integrated master schedule and addressing shortfalls in component schedules, update the joint cost and schedule confidence level for JPSS-1, if warranted and justified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2014, NOAA completed an update to its contingency plan. We have ongoing work assessing the agency's latest contingency plan that will provide updated information on the progress the agency has made in establishing a plan for potential satellite data gaps in the polar orbit that is consistent with best practices.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to establish a comprehensive contingency plan for potential satellite data gaps in the polar orbit that is consistent with contingency planning best practices identified in this report. The plan should include, for example, specific contingency actions with defined roles and responsibilities, timelines, and triggers; analysis of the impact of lost data from the morning orbits; and identification of opportunities to accelerate the calibration and validation phase of JPSS-1.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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