Polar Weather Satellites:

NOAA Needs To Prepare for Near-term Data Gaps [Reissued on January 16, 2015]

GAO-15-47: Published: Dec 16, 2014. Publicly Released: Jan 15, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program has recently completed significant development activities and remains within its cost and schedule baselines; however, recent cost growth on key components is likely unsustainable and risks remain that could increase the potential for near-term satellite data gaps. For example, technical issues experienced while developing a key instrument have led to a very tight schedule. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is working to mitigate such risks, but is not tracking actual completion dates for its risk mitigation activities. In addition, while the program has reduced its estimate for a near-term satellite data gap in the afternoon orbit to only 3 months, its gap assessment was based on incomplete data (such as the increasing threat from space debris) and the agency has not updated its assessment to address these limitations. As shown below, a gap in satellite data may occur earlier and last longer than NOAA anticipates.

Timeline for a Potential Gap in Polar Satellite Data in the Afternoon Orbit

Timeline for a Potential Gap in Polar Satellite Data in the Afternoon Orbit

Experts within and outside of NOAA identified almost 40 alternatives for mitigating potential gaps in polar satellite data, which offer a variety of benefits and challenges. These alternatives include actions to prevent or limit a potential gap by providing JPSS-like capabilities, and actions that could reduce the impact of a potential gap by (a) extending and expanding the use of current data sources, (b) enhancing modeling and data assimilation,(c) developing new data sources, or (d) exploring opportunities with foreign and domestic partners. However, obstacles to the alternatives, such as the time required to develop new instruments, may restrict them from being available to address a near-term gap.

While multiple alternatives for mitigating a gap exist, NOAA's contingency plan focuses on a subset of these alternatives. NOAA has improved its contingency plan by identifying mitigation strategies and specific activities. However, the agency's plan has shortfalls such as not providing an assessment of available alternatives based on their cost and potential impacts. In addition, key projects affecting improvements to forecast models and assimilation of additional data sources have been delayed, but NOAA has not yet prioritized mitigation projects most likely to address a gap. Moreover, NOAA is not providing consistent or comprehensive reporting of its progress on all mitigation projects. Until NOAA addresses shortfalls in contingency planning, implements its most critical contingency activities before data gaps can occur in the near-term, and improves its progress monitoring, the agency will have less assurance that it is adequately prepared to deal with a gap 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, GAO and NOAA have previously reported that a gap in satellite data between the current satellite and the next one is likely. Given the criticality of satellite data to weather forecasting, 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. GAO's objectives were to (1) evaluate NOAA's progress on the JPSS satellite program with respect to cost, schedule, and mitigation of key risks; (2) identify the benefits and challenges of alternatives for polar satellite gap mitigation; and (3) assess NOAA's efforts to establish and implement a comprehensive contingency plan for potential gaps in polar satellite data. To do so, GAO analyzed program management status reports, milestone reviews, and risk data; examined polar gap contingency plans; and interviewed experts as well as agency and contractor officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending NOAA track completion dates for risk mitigation activities, update its data gap assessment, address shortfalls in its contingency plan, prioritize mitigation projects most likely to address a gap, and report progress on all mitigation projects. 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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and has addressed it. The agency is now documenting and tracking completion dates for its risk mitigation efforts.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of reducing key risks to JPSS satellites, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to track completion dates for all risk mitigation activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and released a new constellation availability assessment in April 2015. This assessment includes estimates of availability for current and future polar satellites, based on current launch dates, a standard value for data calibration, and updated expectations for satellite lifetimes. However, the assessment does not fully implement the recommendation. For example, it does not yet include the risk of space debris in its calculations. NOAA is planning to issue an updated version of the constellation availability analysis by December 2015. We will continue to monitor agency efforts in this area.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of reducing key risks to JPSS satellites, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to update the program's assessment of potential polar satellite data gaps to include more accurate assumptions about launch dates and the length of the data calibration period, as well as key risks such as the potential effect of space debris on JPSS and other polar satellites' expected lifetimes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and updated the polar gap contingency plan in April 2015. The new plan has added information on how selected mitigation strategies were completed, identified opportunities for accelerating the calibration and validation of products, and provided cost information on available alternatives related to the actions taken in the plan. However, the April 2015 version of the plan does not fully implement the recommendation. Specifically, it does not identify DOD's and Japan's plan to continue weather satellite observations, does not include recovery time objectives for key products, has not established a schedule with meaningful timelines and linkages among mitigation activities, and has not defined completion dates for testing and validating the alternatives. Also, completion dates for selected strategies in the plan are not yet defined. We will continue to monitor agency efforts in this area.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of reducing key risks to JPSS satellites, because NOAA has not fully implemented our prior recommendation to establish a comprehensive contingency plan for potential satellite data gaps in the polar orbit that is consistent with contingency planning best practices, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to revise the polar satellite contingency plan to address the shortfalls noted in this report, such as identifying DOD's and Japan's plans to continue weather satellite observations, including recovery time objectives for key products, completing the contingency plan with selected strategies, identifying opportunities for accelerating calibration and validation of products, providing an assessment of available alternatives based on their costs and potential impacts, establishing a schedule with meaningful timelines and linkages among mitigation activities, and defining completion dates for testing and validating the alternatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation and stated that it will work with NWS and OAR to establish and implement a process to prioritize mitigation projects based on factors such as criticality and timeliness, and using assessments such as observing system experiments (OSEs) and observing system simulation experiments (OSSEs). We have not yet validated agency actions on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of reducing key risks to JPSS satellites, in order to enhance NOAA's preparedness for potential polar satellite data gaps in the near-term, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the NOAA Administrator to direct the Assistant Administrators of the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), National Weather Service (NWS), and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) to investigate ways to prioritize mitigation projects with the greatest potential benefit to weather forecasting in the event of a gap in JPSS satellite data and report recommendations to the NOAA program management council.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation and stated it would perform monthly and quarterly updates to NOAA management. We have not yet validated agency actions on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of reducing key risks to JPSS satellites, in order to enhance NOAA's preparedness for potential polar satellite data gaps in the near-term, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Assistant Administrators of NESDIS, NWS, and OAR to ensure that the relevant entities provide monthly and quarterly updates on the progress on all mitigation projects and activities during existing monthly and quarterly management meetings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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