House Hearing Explores Weather Satellite Data Gap

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Publication date: 
19 February 2015

A joint hearing last week by two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee provided an update on the status of a program to replace key aging satellites providing critical data used in weather predictions.  Among the witnesses was Alexander MacDonald, President of the American Meteorological Society, a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics.

The nation’s polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites are nearing the end of their expected design life.  Development and acquisition of new satellites has been troubled, entailing large cost overruns, downsizing of hardware, technical problems, and management problems, resulting in significant schedule slippage. 

In early 2010 the Administration established a new program removing the Department of Defense in the development of new civilian weather satellites.  Going forward, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA were charged with developing and launching the replacement satellites.   Geostationary satellites are to be launched in March 2016 and May 2017.  The first launch of a joint polar satellite is scheduled for March 2017; a second joint polar satellite launch is to occur in December 2022.

There are many unknowns that will determine if there will be a gap, and the duration of that gap, in satellite weather data.  In 2012, the NOAA/NASA program office estimated that the gap could be 18 months, a figure that was reduced to three months in 2013.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has long studied this program, estimates that under various scenarios the data gap could be between 11 and 68 months.  Among the unknowns are unanticipated technical, launch, and testing problems and the effect of a compressed schedule to complete this work.  Also unknown is the problem of unanticipated space debris that could disable or destroy a satellite.  The extent to which existing satellites will provide data beyond expected design life is unclear.

The witnesses were very guardedly optimistic.  David Powner of GAO spoke of “significant progress,” “excellent progress,” and a “solid cost footing” when discussing various aspects of the development of the new satellites.  Stephen Volz of NOAA and Steven Clarke of NASA described the productive relationship between the two agencies, while MacDonald, also with NOAA, and John Murphy of the National Weather Service discussed various mitigation strategies. 

Despite this measured optimism there were serious concerns expressed about achieving the schedule for the replacement satellites.  GAO placed the program to reduce the data gap on its “High Risk List” in 2013 and reiterated this designation last week. Powner said there was a “very high probability of a gap” in high quality data.   NOAA and NASA officials described a range of concerns about putting the new satellites in operation on time.  Mitigation strategies were often discussed, such as the use of commercial data, data from other nations, alternative sensing technologies, utilization of legacy satellites, modeling, and high performance computing in the event that operational satellite coverage is lacking.   

The two-hour hearing was marked by a noticeable lack of partisanship and highly informed discussion between the committee members and the witnesses.  Committee members repeatedly expressed their awareness of the importance of the data provided by these satellites in weather prediction, and were supportive of the efforts being undertaken to get the replacement satellites in place.