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.

Multimedia:

  • PODCAST: Near-Term Data Gaps in NOAA Weather Satellite

    Audio interview by GAO staff with Dave Powner, Director, Information Technology

    Note: the original podcast contained an error in the name of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We have corrected the error and reposted the podcast.

    View the transcript

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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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and updated its assessment of the polar satellite constellation three times since our report was issued. In these updates, NOAA included more accurate assumptions about launch dates, the length of the calibration period, and key risks. For example, in its April 2017 assessment, NOAA included detailed models of the potential effects of space debris collisions on the S-NPP and JPSS-1 satellites.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: The agency agreed with our recommendation and has addressed it in the latest iteration of the gap contingency plan. NOAA's plan addressed concerns regarding availability alternatives, recovery time objectives, potential impacts, meaningful timelines, and linkages among mitigation activities. Additionally, NOAA assimilated data from one of the Department of Defense's satellites operating beyond its design life to support the afternoon orbit. The agency determined that there were no additional options that could address the loss of data from DOD's satellites, which remains a risk.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation. In May 2015, a NOAA official stated that prioritization of the mitigation efforts was fully completed as part of the agency's move from the initial analysis of alternatives for gap mitigation to the current list of ongoing gap mitigation activities, and that none of the efforts underway can be prioritized over or under each other. In addition, key mitigation efforts to upgrade NOAA's high performance computing, which can assist in the development of other gap mitigation alternatives, were completed. As of early 2016, NOAA plans no new updates to its gap mitigation plan other than status updates for progress of already existing efforts.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation. In November 2015, NOAA officials stated that the agency planned to begin providing regular updates on all mitigation activities as part of its updates to its gap mitigation plan. Since April 2016, the responsible offices have provided regular updates on all gap mitigation projects. As a result, the agency improved its oversight over gap mitigation projects and its ability to monitor progress.

    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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