Weather Satellites:

Planning for the Geostationary Satellite Program Needs More Attention

AIMD-97-37: Published: Mar 13, 1997. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 1997.

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Jack L. Brock, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) management of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) Program, focusing on: (1) NOAA's strategy for procuring satellites in the GOES continuation series; (2) what steps NOAA should be taking now to prepare for the next generation series of satellites; and (3) whether the potential exists for improving the system and reducing costs in the long term.

GAO noted that: (1) based on the best available analysis, the potential for a gap in geostationary satellite coverage will be significant in the early years of the next century if procurement of new satellites does not begin soon; (2) to prevent this problem, NOAA plans to competitively procure two to four continuation series spacecraft that will carry the same meteorological instruments as the current spacecraft and incorporate modest technical improvements; (3) the satellites are planned for launch beginning in 2002; (4) given the importance of maintaining continuous geostationary weather coverage, NOAA's plans are reasonable; (5) however, there are inherent difficulties in determining exactly when and how many of the continuation series spacecraft will be needed; (6) despite these difficulties, GAO identified several specific shortcomings in NOAA's spacecraft planning process that, if remedied, could improve planning in the future; (7) based on the President's fiscal year (FY) 1998 budget, NOAA does not plan to begin a follow-on GOES program until FY 2003 at the earliest; (8) given that the opportunity now exists to consider alternatives for a follow-on system, current usage of GOES data by weather forecasters suggests that a reexamination of the GOES satellite architecture is warranted; (9) before a decision can be made about what kind of follow-on satellite system to build, an updated analysis of user needs must be completed; (10) several new approaches and technologies for geostationary satellite meteorology have been suggested in recent years by government, academic, and industry experts, however, identifying and evaluating the full range of options will require thorough engineering analysis; (11) in addition, past NOAA experience shows that developing new technologies is done most efficiently as a separate line of effort, outside of the operational satellite program; (12) such an effort would benefit from greater collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whose expertise and support have, in the past, significantly contributed to the development of NOAA's weather satellite systems; (13) the longer that NOAA continues without actively considering other options for a future system, the more it risks having to procure additional continuation series satellites, because the availability date for a fully developed new satellite system will slip farther into the future; and (14) the potential advantages of advanced technologies and small satellite constellations as well as questions about changing user requirements suggest that alternatives to the present architecture should be seriously considered.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA has recently documented its official criteria. According to the NOAA GOES program manager, activation of a replacement spacecraft will occur when either one of the two operational spacecraft suffers a failure. A failure is defined as occurring when a spacecraft is no longer controllable, or if either of its two primary sensors fails.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, NOAA, should ensure that the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) clarifies official criteria for activating replacement spacecraft in the event of a failure of an operational GOES satellite or any of its instruments or subsystems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA has established a new launch backup strategy, which is to maintain on orbit two operational satellites as well as an on-orbit spare. Within 1 year of the launch of a new satellite to replace one of these three, an additional spacecraft will be made ready on the ground for launch when needed.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, NOAA, should ensure that NESDIS reexamines the agency's strategy for anticipating possible launch failures and considers scheduling backups for all future launches.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA has addressed this recommendation by expanding studies that it had previously initiated to examine architectures and advanced technologies for the GOES follow-on program. Also, a requirements definition process has been developed, and budget initiatives to accelerate the follow-on program to fiscal year 2000 are being proposed.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, NOAA, should reconsider the agency's decision to defer the follow-on program until after FY 2002.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to NOAA, the complexity and need for a thorough requirements study prevent starting a follow-on program in FY 1998. The agency is not planning to conduct the analysis GAO recommends until FY 2000. In the meantime, NOAA and NASA are making limited investments in technology studies to position themselves for the start of the follow-on program. NOAA does not plan to prepare a special cost and benefits analysis for congressional use.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, NOAA, should prepare a formal analysis, for consideration by the Congress, of the costs and benefits of several alternatives for the timing, funding, and scope of the follow-on program, including the possibility of starting the program in FY 1998 and the potential need to fund some types of technology development apart from the operational satellite program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


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