NOAA to Launch New Satellites Despite Concerns

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will launch two satellites to monitor weather and temperature patterns around the globe, but the agency is concerned about potential issues including data gaps following the expiration of previous satellites.

The first Joint Polar Satellite System (J-1) is set to launch in March 2017 and will replace the Suomi-National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite. In a statement to MeriTalk, NOAA said the NPP satellite remains operating and is not expected to expire. However, David Powner, director of information and technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, raised questions about NOAA’s plans to extend NPP’s life to 2020.

“Since then we’ve learned that NOAA now labels this four year extension as fuel limited life and is not the expected life of the space craft sensors,” Powner said. “This is another instance where NOAA’s charts and satellite lifespans have been misleading to the Congress. Another key question is whether the ATMS [Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder] instrument on NPP will last until J-1’s ATMS becomes operational.”

In the past, NOAA and the Department of Defense have worked with international organizations to make up for the gaps in weather data.

“We have global coordination activities already in place for meteorological activities across all the major [meteorological] organizations in the world,” said Stephen Volz, an administrator for NOAA.

The development of new satellites has been delayed because of cost growth and management problems. By decreasing the complexity of the satellites, NOAA hopes to lower costs, according to David Powner, director of information and technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office.

The military uses data from these satellites every day for tactical missions, according to Ralph Stoffler, director of weather and deputy chief of staff for operations for the U.S. Air Force. The satellites take pictures and incorporate them into a cloud forecasting and ionospheric forecasting system. Two of the top data priorities that the Air Force needs, cloud characterization and theater weather imagery, still can’t be assessed using NOAA technology because of the departments’ failure to communicate effectively. Cloud characterization is used for long-range strike operations and theater weather imagery is used in forecasting and battle space awareness.

JPSS-1 will be the first robust system operated by NOAA, which means that if a satellite part is lost, another satellite would already be in orbit that can serve the same function.

The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R is set to launch Nov. 4. It will provide continuous imagery of the western hemisphere, total lightning data, and space weather monitoring.

NOAA is also implementing more ground antennae to receive data from these satellites. One concern with ground stations is the security of the areas to prevent incidents and data loss.

Another concern is the appropriate utilization of data to create the greatest impact on weather calculations.

“I have constituents that die from tornadoes,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment. “My mission here is to get as much data, the right data, so we can ultimately move to a day where we have zero deaths from tornadoes.”

NOAA and the DOD are on the path to that outcome by 2021 if data is used optimally, according to Stoffler.

 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the process for responding to a lost satellite part and to address NOAA’s contention that the NPP satellite system remains operational and is not expected to expire.

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