Loch NPOESS Monster: The Environmental Satellite Rarely Spotted

Image from unukorno. Some rights reserved.

On Friday, the GAO released written testimony before the Subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations and Energy and Environment, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on the topic of polar satellites. The testimony reviewed and summarized work that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been doing to develop individual environmental satellite programs that are replacing the recently disbanded joint-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The main area of concern? Whether agency slowness could lead to gaps in weather and climate data coverage.

But first, let’s step back a few years.

NPOESS was planned to be a “next generation” environment-monitoring satellite system – circling the earth once every 100 minutes – that would have replaced some clunkier existing satellite systems. The data it would have collected was considered critical for long-term weather and climate forecasting. A contract for the project was awarded in 2002.

In February of 2010, however, the President cut the plug – before the first demonstration satellite was even launched. The program had been plagued with problems. The cost estimates for NPOESSie, our proverbial beast, grew more than 100% (from $6.5B in 2002 to $13.9B at the time of its demise). The program had also suffered significant delays (the planned launch date for a the test satellite was pushed back by over 5 years), as well as technical and management “challenges,” as a White House Fact Sheet put it bluntly.

More accurately, the program was “restructured.” The joint agency project was re-worked as separate satellite programs to be established by NOAA and DOD. A few months after the restructuring was announced, GAO published an initial report assessing the agencies’ efforts, and – surprise, surprise! – found a few areas of concern relating to delays (“the two agencies are scrambling to develop plans for their respective programs”), loss of staff, and insufficient oversight of new program management. The report included recommendations for both agencies to address the key risks.

Last week’s testimony checked back in on NOAA and DOD. According to the GAO, in the year since their first report on the satellite systems, both agencies have made progress in developing their programs and implementing GAO’s recommendations, though not everything has been addressed. The key concern here is that failure to get things up and running quickly – in other words, launching new satellites before the old ones fail – could lead to gaps in satellite data. (There are several figures in both the GAO testimony and report that detail potential gaps.)

And what exactly is the problem with gaps in satellite data? The GAO testimony says it best:

 “According to NOAA, a data gap would lead to less accurate and timely weather prediction models used to support weather forecasting, and advanced warning of extreme events—such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—would be diminished. The agency reported that this could place lives, property, and critical infrastructure in danger. In addition, NOAA estimated that the time it takes to respond to emergency search and rescue beacons could double.”

Let’s hope we get a glimpse of NPOESSie (or her spawn) soon.

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