GAO-10-799 September 2010 Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites:
Improvements Needed in Continuity Planning and Involvement of Key Users


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Since the 1960s, geostationary and polar-orbiting environmental satellites have been used by the United States to provide meteorological data for weather observation, research, and forecasting. NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) is responsible for managing the civilian operational geostationary and polar-orbiting satellite systems as two separate programs, called GOES and the Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites, respectively.

Unlike polar-orbiting satellites, which constantly circle the earth in a relatively low polar orbit, geostationary satellites can maintain a constant view of the earth from a high orbit of about 22,300 miles in space. NOAA operates GOES as a two-satellite system that is primarily focused on the United States (see fig. 1). These satellites are uniquely positioned to provide timely environmental data about the earth's atmosphere, surface, cloud cover, and the space environment to meteorologists and their audiences. They also observe the development of hazardous weather, such as hurricanes and severe thunderstorms, and track their movement and intensity to reduce or avoid major losses of property and life. Furthermore, the satellites' ability to provide broad, continuously updated coverage of atmospheric conditions over land and oceans is important to NOAA's weather forecasting operations.

Figure 1: Approximate GOES Geographic Coverage
Refer to the accessible text file at for a description of this graphic.

To provide continuous satellite coverage, NOAA acquires several satellites at a time as part of a series and launches new satellites every few years (see table 1).[1] NOAA's policy is to have two operational satellites and one backup satellite in orbit at all times.

Table 1: Summary of the Procurement History of GOES
Series name Procurement durationa Satellites
Original GOESb 1970-1987 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
GOES I-M 1985-2001 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
GOES-N 1998-2010 13, 14, 15, Qc
GOES-R 2008-2017 R, S

Five GOES satellites—GOES-11, GOES-12, GOES-13, GOES-14, and GOES-15—are currently in orbit. Both GOES-11 and GOES-13 are operational satellites, with GOES-11 covering the west and GOES-13 the east. GOES-14 is currently a backup for the other two satellites should they experience any degradation in service. The final satellite in the series, GOES-15, is undergoing a post-launch test period until October 2010, at which time it will also be put in on-orbit storage mode. GOES-12 is at the end of its service life, but is being used to provide coverage of South America. The GOES-R series is the next generation of satellites that NOAA is planning; the satellites are planned for launch beginning in 2015.

Each of the operational geostationary satellites continuously transmits raw environmental data to NOAA ground stations. The data are processed at these ground stations and transmitted back to the satellite for broadcast to primary weather services and the global research community in the United States and abroad. Raw and processed data are also distributed to users via ground stations through other communication channels, such as dedicated private communication lines and the Internet. Figure 2 depicts a generic data relay pattern from the geostationary satellites to the ground stations and commercial terminals.

Figure 2: Generic GOES Data Relay Pattern
Refer to the accessible text file at for a description of this graphic.

Back to topOverview of the GOES-R Program

NOAA plans for the GOES-R program to improve on the technology of prior series, in terms of both system and instrument improvements. The system improvements are expected to fulfill more demanding user requirements by updating the satellite data more often and providing satellite products to users more quickly. The instrument improvements are expected to significantly increase the clarity and precision of the observed environmental data. NOAA originally planned to acquire six different types of instruments. Furthermore, two of these instruments—the Advanced Baseline Imager and the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite—were considered to be the most critical because they would provide data for key weather products. Table 2 summarizes the originally planned instruments and their expected capabilities.

Table 2: Originally Planned GOES-R Series Instruments, as of August 2006
Planned instrument Description
Advanced Baseline Imager Expected to provide variable area imagery and radiometric information of the earth's surface, atmosphere, and cloud cover. Key features include
  • monitoring and tracking severe weather;
  • providing images of clouds to support forecasts; and
  • providing higher resolution, faster coverage, and broader coverage simultaneously.
Hyperspectral Environmental Suitea Expected to provide information about the earth's surface to aid in the prediction of weather and climate monitoring. Key features include
  • providing atmospheric moisture and temperature profiles of the rapidly evolving pre-storm convective environment to support forecasts and warnings of high-impact weather phenomena;
  • monitoring coastal regions for ecosystem health, water quality, coastal erosion, and harmful algal blooms; and
  • providing higher resolution and faster coverage.
Geostationary Lightning Mapper Expected to continuously monitor total lightning (in-cloud and cloud-to-ground) activity over the United States and adjacent oceans and to provide a more complete dataset than previously possible. Key features include
  • detecting lightning activity as an indicator of severe storms and convective weather hazard impacts to aviation, and
  • providing a new capability to GOES for long-term mapping of total lightning that only previously existed on NASA low-earth-orbiting research satellites.
Magnetometer Expected to provide information on the general level of geomagnetic activity, monitor current systems in space, and permit detection of magnetopause crossings, sudden storm commencements, and substorms.
Space Environmental In-Situ Suite Expected to provide information on space weather to aid in the prediction of particle precipitation, which causes disturbance and disruption of radio communications and navigation systems. Key features include
  • measuring magnetic fields and charged particles;
  • providing improved heavy ion detection, adding low-energy electrons and protons; and
  • enabling early warnings for satellite and power grid operation, telecom services, astronauts, and airlines.
Solar Imaging Suiteb Expected to provide coverage of the entire dynamic range of solar X-ray features, from coronal holes to X-class flares, as well as estimate the measure of temperature and emissions. Key features include
  • providing images of the sun and measuring solar output to monitor solar storms, and
  • providing improved imager capability.

However, in September 2006, NOAA decided to reduce the scope and technical complexity of the GOES-R program because of expectations that total costs, which were originally estimated to be $6.2 billion, could reach $11.4 billion.[2] Specifically, NOAA reduced the minimum number of satellites from four to two, cancelled plans for developing the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite (which reduced the number of planned satellite products from 81 to 68), and divided the Solar Imaging Suite into two separate acquisitions. In light of the cancellation of the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite, NOAA decided to use the planned Advanced Baseline Imager to develop certain satellite data products that were originally to be produced by this instrument. The agency estimated that the revised program would cost $7 billion.

Subsequently, NOAA made several other important decisions about the cost and scope of the GOES-R program. In May 2007, NOAA had an independent cost estimate completed for the GOES-R program.[3] After reconciling the program office's cost estimate of $7 billion with the independent cost estimate of about $9 billion, the agency established a new program cost estimate of $7.67 billion. This was an increase of $670 million from the previous estimate. Further, in November 2007, to mitigate the risk that costs would rise, program officials decided to remove selected program requirements from the baseline program and treat them as contract options that could be exercised if funds allow. These requirements include the number of products to be distributed, the time to deliver the remaining products (product latency), and how often these products are updated with new satellite data (refresh rate). For example, program officials eliminated the requirement to develop and distribute 34 of the 68 envisioned products, including aircraft icing threat, turbulence, and visibility. Program officials included the restoration of the products, latency, and refresh rates as options in the ground system contract that could be acquired at a later time. Program officials later reduced the number of products that could be restored as a contract option (called option 2) from 34 to 31 because they determined that two products were no longer feasible and two others could be combined into a single product. See table 3 below for an overview of key changes to the GOES-R program.

Table 3: Key Changes to the GOES-R Program
  Baseline program, as of August 2006 Revised program, as of September 2006 Current program
Number of satellites 4 2 2
Instruments 2 critical instruments:
  • Advanced Baseline Imager
  • Hyperspectral Environmental Suite
4 noncritical instruments/suites:
  • Geostationary Lightning Mapper
  • Magnetometer
  • Space Environmental In-Situ Suite
  • Solar Imaging Suite (which included the Solar Ultraviolet Imager, and Extreme Ultraviolet/ X-Ray Irradiance Sensor)
1 critical instrument:
  • Advanced Baseline Imager
5 noncritical instruments/suites:
  • Geostationary Lightning Mapper
  • Magnetometer
  • Space Environmental In-Situ Suite
  • Solar Ultraviolet Imager
  • Extreme Ultraviolet/X-Ray Irradiance Sensor
1 critical instrument:
  • Advanced Baseline Imager
5 noncritical instruments/suites:
  • Geostationary Lightning Mapper
  • Magnetometer
  • Space Environmental In-Situ Suite
  • Solar Ultraviolet Imager
  • Extreme Ultraviolet/X-Ray Irradiance Sensor
Number of satellite products 81 68 34 baseline
31 optional
Life-cycle cost estimate (in then year dollars) $6.2 billion—$11.4 billion (through 2034) $7 billion (through 2028) $7.67 billion (through 2028)

Back to topAcquisition Strategy

NOAA's original acquisition strategy was to award contracts for concept development of the GOES-R system to several vendors who would subsequently compete to be the single prime contractor responsible for overall system development and production. In keeping with this strategy, NOAA awarded contracts for concept development of the overall GOES-R system to three vendors in October 2005. However, in March 2007, NOAA revised its acquisition strategy for the development contract. In response to recommendations by independent advisors, the agency decided to separate the overall system development and production contract into two separate contracts—the spacecraft and ground system contracts.

In addition, to reduce the risks associated with developing technically advanced instruments, NASA awarded contracts for concept development for five of the planned instruments. NASA subsequently awarded development contracts for five instruments and, upon completion and approval by NASA, these instruments will be provided to the prime contractor responsible for the spacecraft of the GOES-R program. NASA will then work with the spacecraft contractor to integrate and test these instruments. The sixth instrument, the Magnetometer, is to be developed as part of the spacecraft contract.

Back to topProgram Office Structure

NOAA is solely responsible for GOES-R program funding and overall mission success. However, since it relies on NASA's acquisition experience and technical expertise to help ensure the success of its programs, NOAA implemented an integrated program management structure with NASA for the GOES-R program (see fig. 3). NOAA also located the program office at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Within the program office, there are two project offices that manage key components of the GOES-R system. These are called the flight and ground system project offices. The Flight Project Office, managed by NASA, is responsible for awarding and managing the spacecraft contract and delivering flight-ready instruments to the spacecraft. The Ground System Project Office, managed by NOAA, oversees the Core Ground System contract and satellite data product development and distribution.

Figure 3: GOES-R Program Office Structure and Staffing
Refer to the accessible text file at for a description of this graphic.

Back to topPrior Report Noted Challenges with Instrument Development and Recommended
Steps to Improve Management and Oversight

In April 2009, we reported that a key instrument had experienced technical challenges that led to cost overruns and schedule delays.[4] Specifically, the Advanced Baseline Imager experienced problems with the quality of components in the focal plane module, mirrors, and telescope. As of November 2008, the contractor had incurred a cost overrun of approximately $30 million and delayed $11 million worth of work. In addition, we found that the contractors for both the Advanced Baseline Imager and the Geostationary Lightning Mapper programs had not documented all of the reasons for cost and schedule variances in certain cost reports. At the time, we recommended that NOAA improve its ability to oversee contractor performance by ensuring that the reasons for cost and schedule variances are fully disclosed and documented. Over the past year, NOAA has improved its ability to oversee contractor performance by, for example, ensuring that the reasons for cost and schedule variances are fully documented in contractor monthly variance reports.

In that same report, we also found that NOAA had delayed key GOES-R program milestones, including the launch of the first satellite, which was delayed from December 2014 to April 2015. Program officials attributed these delays to providing more stringent oversight before releasing the request for proposals for the spacecraft and ground system, additional time needed to evaluate the contract proposals, and funding reductions in fiscal year 2008. We reported that, as a result of these delays, NOAA may not be able to meet its policy of having a backup satellite in orbit at all times. Specifically, in 2015, NOAA expected to have two operational satellites in orbit, but it would not have a backup satellite in place until GOES-R is launched. As a result, any further delays in the launch of the first satellite in the GOES-R program would increase the risk of gaps in satellite coverage.

[1]Satellites in a series are identified by letters of the alphabet when they are on the ground and by numbers once they are in orbit.

[2]GAO, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Additional Action Needed to Incorporate Lessons Learned from Other Satellite Programs, GAO-06-1129T (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 29, 2006) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Steps Remain in Incorporating Lessons Learned from Other Satellite Programs, GAO-06-993 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 6, 2006).

[3]GAO, Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Acquisition Has Increased Costs, Reduced Capabilities, and Delayed Schedules, GAO-09-596T (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 23, 2009); Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Acquisition Is Under Way, but Improvements Needed in Management and Oversight, GAO-09-323 (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 2, 2009); Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Further Actions Needed to Effectively Manage Risks, GAO-08-183T (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 23, 2007); and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites: Progress Has Been Made, but Improvements Are Needed to Effectively Manage Risks, GAO-08-18 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 23, 2007).


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