Panel warns of ‘catastrophic’ gap in weather satellite data

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Unless it acts quickly, the United States faces the likelihood of a ‘catastrophic’ reduction in weather and climate data beginning in 2016, resulting in less reliable weather and climate forecasts, a commission said Thursday. federal review. The review team, which consisted of veterans from the weather, space and aerospace industries, found that the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made progress addressing major issues with its satellite programs since the last external review was completed in 2012, but the agency hasn’t done enough to mitigate the impacts of a lack of satellite data. .

The Suomi NPP satellite, the newest polar-orbiting satellite in the US fleet, can track chlorophyll concentrations in the oceans. Purple and blue colors represent lower chlorophyll concentrations. Oranges and reds represent higher chlorophyll concentrations. These color differences indicate areas with less or more phytoplankton in the ocean.
Click on the image to enlarge. Credit: NASA/Suomi NPP/Norman Kuring

To reduce the risk of a data gap in polar-orbiting satellites, which provide the vast majority of data that is fed into computer models used for weather forecasting, the team recommended that NOAA quickly begin work on a new “gap-filling” satellite that could be used as a band-aid to ensure crucial weather and climate data keeps flowing.

Polar-orbiting satellites continuously scan the planet from north to south, and instruments on board these satellites, such as atmospheric sounders, provide data on atmospheric winds and humidity. This data is then fed into computer models that meteorologists use to make weather forecasts. Data from polar-orbiting satellites is particularly useful for making medium-range forecasts up to about seven days in advance.

NOAA has warned that starting around 2016, there will be at least a one-year gap between the design life of the newest polar-orbiting satellite and the planned launch date of its replacement.

This would mean that the United States would depend on a single polar-orbiting satellite, rather than the two that have been in service for a long time. NOAA has racked up billions in cost overruns for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, and congressional delays and lack of funding have put that program, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), years behind.

NOAA and international forecast agencies have warned that such a lack of data could significantly erode the agency’s ability to provide advance notice of significant weather events.

The review team found an “unacceptably high likelihood of a JPSS data gap,” said A. Thomas Young, review team chair and former president of Martin Marietta Corporation.

Young declined to elaborate on the odds of a spread when speaking with reporters on a conference call Thursday. “The numbers in my mind aren’t really significant,” Young said. “You should never depend on a one-stream system where you’re one step away” from losing crucial data of national importance, he said.

The “Gap Filler”

Like a driver replacing a flat tire with a range-limited spare, the IRT recommended NOAA mitigate the impacts of a lack of satellites by procuring more sounding instruments. atmosphere, considered essential for weather forecasting, and installing two of them on a new satellite filling the gap.

Artistic representation of the first JPSS satellite.
Credit: NASA.

The “gap-filler” satellite would be smaller and much less expensive than any of the JPSS satellites, and could be placed in low Earth orbit in 3 years or less, if the project begins immediately, the IRT found. It would be intended to cover the period between the end of the design life of the newest polar-orbiting satellite, known as the Suomi-NPP satellite, and the first JPSS spacecraft, which is scheduled for launch in late 2017 at the end of 2017. earlier.

“. . . With an accelerated decision and procurement process, a gap-filling mission could protect against a gap before the end of 2017,” the IRT report states. “This plan . . . is heading toward the goal of being two misses” from a lack of polar satellite data, the report said.

Later atmospheric sounding sensors, the review team advised, should be purchased and developed now, to be ready for installation on later JPSS satellites, such as JPSS-2, scheduled for launch in 2021.

A filler satellite would require new appropriations from Congress, where lawmakers have repeatedly chastised NOAA for cost overruns and delays, and the talk is more of budget restraint than increased spending.

“We believe there is an urgent need ‘to procure a bridge gap, despite the difficult fiscal climate on Capitol Hill,'” Young said. “

Research by NOAA and international agencies has shown that a gap in satellite coverage would make routine weather forecasts less reliable. For example, experiments using forecasts for Hurricane Sandy showed that forecast models would have shown the storm curving out to sea and missing the United States, rather than taking its devastating hook outward. west, on the Jersey Shore. This storm claimed 117 lives and caused at least $65 billion in damage. Accurate forecasts made several days before the storm’s arrival were widely credited with saving lives.

“The absence of JPSS data due to a discrepancy could prove catastrophic,” Young said.

A number of private satellite companies are planning to launch satellites into low Earth orbit that could augment or replace some of the federal environmental satellite programs, and Congress has shown interest in encouraging, if not outright forcing, NOAA to buy data from the private sector as part of its operations.

The Skybox-1 satellite is an example of new private sector satellites designed for environmental monitoring. It’s about the size of a mini-fridge, far smaller than the house-sized Earth imaging satellites it’s supposed to compete with. Here it undergoes the final tests in Mountain View, California.
Credit: Skybox Imaging via Facebook.

NOAA’s Mary Kicza, deputy administrator of NOAA’s information and satellite service, told reporters that the agency was considering private sector solutions, but no decision had been made on whether to use it. private companies to fill in the gaps in polar-orbiting data or problems with the agency’s geostationary system. satellites, which orbit above a fixed point on the planet. She said NOAA takes the review team’s recommendations “very seriously.”

Young said a private-sector solution to the lack of polar-orbiting satellites is “probably not a constructive solution to the problem we face here.”

There are also other, more controversial options available to the United States in the event the gap-filling satellite is not approved. In a controversial finding, a separate report commissioned by NOAA found that the agency’s best alternative would be to look to China for help. The report says NOAA’s “silver bullet” solution would be to buy data from Chinese polar-orbiting satellites to make up for lost US data.

China plans to launch its next generation of polar-orbiting satellites later this year and in 2014, ahead of new US polar-orbiting satellites, and the capabilities of Chinese satellites are expected to be comparable to those of US spacecraft, the study says. .

The Chinese option met with a stern reception on Capitol Hill. During a House Committee hearing on the weather and satellite program on Sept. 19, lawmakers from both sides sharply criticized NOAA for considering buying data from the Chinese government in light of cybersecurity concerns and the links between China’s space industry and that country’s military.

But the status quo is also unsatisfactory, the review team found. Young said the current schedule for the JPSS program will likely leave the country at a near-gap failure, which the IRT says is an “unacceptable position for a system for which data is so critical.”

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