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Environmental Satellites: Focused Attention Needed to Improve Mitigation Strategies for Satellite Coverage Gaps

GAO-13-865T Published: Sep 19, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2013.
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What GAO Found

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made progress on both the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environment Satellite-R series (GOES-R) programs, but key challenges remain to ensure that potential gaps in satellite data are minimized or mitigated. On the JPSS program, NOAA has made noteworthy progress in using Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (S-NPP) data in weather forecasts and developing the JPSS-1 satellite. However, NOAA does not expect to validate key S-NPP products until nearly 3 years after the satellite's launch, and there are remaining issues with the JPSS schedule that decrease the confidence that JPSS-1 will launch by March 2017 as planned. On the GOES-R program, progress in completing the system's design has been accompanied by continuing milestone delays, including delays in the launch dates for both the GOES-R and GOES-S satellites. The potential for further milestone delays also exists due to remaining weaknesses in developing and maintaining key program schedules. Faced with an anticipated gap in the polar satellite program and a potential gap in the geostationary satellite program, NOAA has taken steps to study alternatives and establish mitigation plans. However, the agency does not yet have comprehensive contingency plans that identify specific actions with defined timelines, and triggers. Until NOAA establishes comprehensive contingency plans that addresses these shortfalls, its plans for mitigating potential gaps may not be effective in avoiding significant impacts to its weather mission.

Why GAO Did This Study

As requested, this statement summarizes two reports being released today on (1) the JPSS program's status and plans, schedule quality, and gap mitigation strategies, and (2) the GOES-R series program's status, requirements management, and contingency planning.

Since the 1960s, the United States has used polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites to observe the earth and its land, ocean, atmosphere, and space environments. Polar-orbiting satellites constantly circle the earth in a nearly north-south orbit, providing global coverage of conditions that affect the weather and climate. As the earth rotates beneath it, each polar-orbiting satellite views the entire earth's surface twice a day. In contrast, geostationary satellites maintain a fixed position relative to the earth from a high orbit of about 22,300 miles in space.

Both types of satellites provide a valuable perspective of the environment and allow observations in areas that may be otherwise unreachable. Used in combination with ground, sea, and airborne observing systems, satellites have become an indispensable part of monitoring and forecasting weather and climate. For example, polar-orbiting satellites provide the data that go into numerical weather prediction models, which are a primary tool for forecasting weather days in advance--including forecasting the path and intensity of hurricanes. Geostationary satellites provide the graphical images used to identify current weather patterns and provide short-term warning. These weather products and models are used to predict the potential impact of severe weather so that communities and emergency managers can help prevent and mitigate its effects.

For more information contact David A. Powner at (202) 512-9286 or at

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Polar-orbiting satellitesClimateOperational testingProgram managementSatellitesSchedule slippagesStrategic information systems planningStrategic planningSystems designWeather forecastingData collection