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


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NOAA Has Not Established Adequate Continuity Plans for Its Geostationary Satellites

While federal policy and industry best practices call for the development of plans for continuing essential operations during a disruption or emergency, NOAA has not developed adequate continuity plans for its geostationary satellites for the period of time when there will be no backup in orbit. Planning for the continuity of operations facilitates the performance of an organization's essential functions during emergency events or other situations that disrupt normal operations.[12] Federal policy requires agencies to develop and document continuity of operations plans for essential functions that provide, among other things, a description of the resources, staff roles, procedures, and timetables needed for the plan's implementation. NOAA has defined providing satellite imagery in support of weather forecasting as one of its essential functions.

NOAA has developed continuity plans for the ground systems used to operate and process data from geostationary satellites. Specifically, NOAA's continuity plans for its Satellite Operation Control Center and its Environmental Data Processing Center describe plans to transfer critical functions to a backup facility during an emergency. Both of these continuity plans contain, among other things, descriptions of the alternate locations for performing key functions, resources, and implementation procedures.

In addition to planning for the continuity of its ground systems, NOAA has established a policy to ensure the continuity of its geostationary satellites—and high-level plans if that policy is not met. As previously mentioned, NOAA's policy is to have two operational satellites and one backup satellite in orbit at all times. That way, if an operational satellite fails, the backup satellite would be moved into place to pick up operations. However, if there is no backup satellite in orbit—as is expected to be the case during the year leading up to when GOES-R becomes operational—NOAA officials stated that they would move the single remaining operational satellite to the middle of the continental United States. According to NOAA officials, this would provide sufficient coverage of the continental United States, but would provide limited coverage of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (see fig. 6). In addition, NOAA would contact other nations to request that a spare geostationary satellite, if available, be positioned to provide temporary coverage of the coastal regions, as well as the oceans.[13]

Figure 6: Approximate Geographic Coverage in a Single GOES Configuration
Figure 6: Approximate Geographic Coverage in a Single GOES Configuration

However, NOAA has not established continuity plans for its geostationary satellites that describe the resources, staff roles, procedures, and timetables needed for the plan's implementation. This is important because there are many procedures and coordinating activities that NOAA would need to perform to ensure the continuity of geostationary satellite data in the event of a satellite failure with no backup available. For example, the transition to a single satellite would require NOAA, at a minimum, to inform users of changes to the in-orbit configuration through various methods, including users groups and Web site postings. Alternatively, the transition to an international satellite would require modifications to the software code of several processing systems to account for expected differences in spectral channels, refresh rate, resolution, and coverage areas due to the repositioning of the satellites. Further, all geostationary satellite data products would need to be reverified and validated to account for differences in product coverage. Lastly, NOAA would have to notify GOES data users of differences in satellite capabilities, such as the loss of space weather instruments and data, and changes to viewing angles caused by satellite positions that are different from current GOES locations. For example, the orbital location of an international satellite positioned in a backup configuration may provide a less comprehensive view due to the more severe observing angle over the United States.

In addition, NOAA's lack of continuity plans has precluded the agency from documenting and communicating the operational impact of its plans to reduce to a single satellite and rely on an international satellite. For example, a single satellite configuration would reduce coverage of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans where satellite data provide critical warnings of approaching severe weather, such as tropical cyclone and hurricane activity. According to air traffic officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, the reduction to a single satellite would have a significant impact on the agency's ability to make informed aviation planning decisions over the ocean areas surrounding the continental United States. In addition, transitioning to an international satellite would be dependent on the availability of foreign satellites and it could take several months to reposition an international satellite to provide backup coverage. Furthermore, foreign satellites lack capabilities currently available to GOES users, such as instruments that provide space weather information. For example, the National Weather Service's (NWS) Space Weather Prediction Center relies solely on space weather data from GOES for two-thirds of its data products, which are critical to providing warnings of severe space weather that may impact airline and maritime communication, satellite operations, and astronaut safety.

According to the Deputy Director of the Office of Satellite Operations, continuity plans for geostationary satellites have not been established because the transition to single satellite and to an international satellite has been done previously. Specifically, in 1989, after the failure of GOES-6, NOAA repositioned GOES-7 to the middle of the continental United States. Subsequently, in 1991, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites and the European Space Agency repositioned the Meteosat-3 satellite to backup NOAA's aging GOES-7 satellite in order to provide coverage of the Atlantic Ocean in case GOES-7 failed before a replacement could be launched and placed into operation. While this accomplishment has merit, current GOES and their related ground processing systems are increasingly complex and have enhanced capabilities as compared to earlier satellites, such as ability to capture and process higher resolution images of weather patterns and atmospheric measurements. In addition, there are likely new staff who will not be able to rely on the 1989 and 1991 experiences. Establishing continuity plans that describe the resources, staff roles, procedures, and timetables needed for the plans' implementation (as required by federal policy) would better ensure that NOAA can continue to provide these critical capabilities in the event of a satellite failure.

Without continuity plans, NOAA may not be able to fully meet its mission-essential function of providing satellite imagery in support of weather forecasting. This could have a devastating affect on the ability of meteorologists to observe the development of severe storm conditions, such as hurricanes and tornados, and track their movement and intensity to reduce or avoid major losses of property and life. In addition, the loss of a single satellite could affect many satellite data users outside NOAA, including the Federal Aviation Administration, which use satellite-provided weather data for air traffic management, and the U.S. Forest Service (within the U.S. Department of Agriculture), which uses satellite-provided weather data to predict and prevent wildfires and mitigate their damage.

[12]Department of Homeland Security, Federal Continuity Directive 1: Federal Executive Branch National Continuity Program and Requirements (February 2008); and Software Engineering Institute, Capability Maturity Model@ Integration for Acquisition, Version 1.2, CMU/SEI-2007-TR-017 (Pittsburgh, Pa.: November 2007).

[13]NOAA has reciprocal agreements with the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites and the Japan Meteorological Agency to temporarily provide a backup geostationary satellite on a best-effort basis, if one is available.

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