Key Issues > Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data - High Risk Issue
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Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data - High Risk Issue

Challenges in planning and executing weather satellite acquisition programs could lead to gaps in weather data, affecting forecast accuracy and extreme event warnings. Federal agencies need to plan to mitigate these potential gaps in weather satellite data.

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Mitigating potential gaps in satellite data is a high risk issue because the data are critical to weather forecasts, significant gaps are likely, and there is a great potential impact of such gaps on the health and safety of the U.S. population and economy.

The United States relies on two complementary types of satellite systems for weather observations and forecasts:

(1) polar-orbiting satellites that provide a global perspective every morning and afternoon, and
(2) geostationary satellites that maintain a fixed view of the United States.

Both types of systems are critical to weather forecasters, climatologists, and the military, who map and monitor changes in weather, climate, the oceans, and the environment. Federal agencies are currently planning and executing major satellite acquisition programs to replace existing polar and geostationary satellite systems that are nearing or beyond the end of their expected life spans.

Specifically, the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for the polar satellite program that crosses the equator in the afternoon and for the geostationary satellite program that orbits with the earth’s rotation. The Department of Defense (DOD) is responsible for the polar satellite program that crosses the equator in the early morning. However, these programs have troubled legacies of cost increases, missed milestones, technical problems, and management challenges that have resulted in reduced functionality and slips to planned launch dates. As a result, the continuity of weather satellite data is at risk. According to NOAA program officials, a satellite data gap would result in less accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings of extreme events—such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods. Such degradation in forecasts and warnings would place lives, property, and our nation’s critical infrastructures in danger.

NOAA made improvements to its geostationary weather satellite program, called the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series, by improving its gap mitigation contingency plans, ensuring it had the capacity to integrate and test the next satellite, and launching this satellite in November 2016. However, key issues remain in other programs that still need to be addressed:

  • DOD’s polar-orbiting weather satellite program. This program provides weather observations in the early morning orbit. The department has been slow to establish plans for its follow-on satellite program and has made little progress in determining how it will meet selected weather satellite requirements in the early morning orbit. Moreover, DOD is currently relying on an older satellite that is well past its expected life span. As a result, there is a risk of a weather satellite data gap in the early morning orbit. Such a gap could negatively affect military operations that depend on weather data.
  • NOAA’s polar-orbiting weather satellite program. While NOAA has made progress on its polar-orbiting weather satellite program, more remains to be done to mitigate the risk of a gap in weather satellite data. NOAA officials acknowledge that there is a risk of a gap in polar satellite data in the afternoon orbit, between the time that the current polar satellite is expected to reach the end of its life and the time when the next satellite is expected to be in orbit and operational. This gap could span up to a year or more, depending on how long the current satellite lasts and whether there are any delays in launching or operating the new one.
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2015 Update to GAO's High Risk ListWednesday, February 11, 2015
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