Weather forecasts threatened by satellite network costs, delays

Are we one satellite collision away from losing our ability to track hurricanes and other bad weather? It may not be that dire but it's getting close.

It was pretty much bad news all around for the NOAA Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) weather satellites as the Government Accountability Office testified that the original $7 billion price tag of the GOES satellites has gone up to $7.67 billion and missed deadlines, including the launch of the first satellite, which was delayed from December 2014 to April 2015 threaten the program. 

Such problems could lead to gaps in satellite coverage if NOAA experiences any issues with its current satellites before a backup satellite is in orbit.  Current satellites - there are four -- could reach the end of their useful lives by 2014. Not to mention the increasing threat from collisions with the ever-expanding cosmic junkpile accumulating in Earth orbit.

The GAO also noted that the GOES  program also reduced the number of products the satellites will produce from 81 to 34 and slowed the delivery of these products in order to reduce costs.

The GAO issued its report to the  Subcommittee on Energy and Environment whose ranking member Bob Inglis (R-SC) said: "There is still a threat of launch delays, and even if we get two new satellites in the air, we're now not sure if there will be an on-orbit backup. That means that one mishap with the new instruments, and we could lose our forecasting eyes on half the world. What if we're incapable of predicting a hurricane because of this?"

The GAO said: "The GOES-R program has taken steps to address lessons from other satellite programs, but important actions remain to be completed. NOAA has made progress in its efforts to address prior lessons by taking steps to ensure technical readiness on key components, using an acceptable cost estimating approach, implementing techniques to enhance contractor oversight, and regularly briefing agency executives. However, technical challenges remain on both the ground segment and the instruments. In addition, the program did not perform a comprehensive review after rebaselining a critical instrument, and it has not documented all of the reasons for cost overruns. Until these issues are addressed, NOAA faces an increased risk that the GOES-R program will repeat the same mistakes that have plagued other satellite programs."

Further, until a decision is made on whether and how to proceed in providing the advanced products, key system users, such as weather forecasters, will not be able to meet their goals for improving the accuracy of severe weather warnings. Further, climate research organizations will not obtain the data they need to enhance the science of climate, environmental, and oceanic observations, the GAO stated.

Unlike polar-orbiting satellites, which constantly circle the earth in a

relatively low polar orbit, geostationary satellites can maintain a constant

view of the earth from a high orbit of about 22,300 miles in space. NOAA

operates GOES as a two-satellite system that is primarily focused on the

United States, the GAO stated. These satellites are uniquely positioned to provide timely environmental data about the earth's atmosphere, its surface, cloud cover, and the space environment to meteorologists and their audiences. They also observe the development of hazardous weather, such as hurricanes and severe thunderstorms, and track their movement and intensity to reduce or avoid major losses of property and life, the GAO report noted.

The Lockheed Martin GOES-R satellites are expected to include a number of advanced features including:

Imager: Improved resolution (4x), faster coverage (5X), more bands (2X) and more area and space coverage simultaneously

Lightning detection: Continuous coverage of total lightning flash rate over land and water Solar/Space Monitoring: Better Imager (UV over X-Ray) and improved heavy ion detection, adds low energy electrons and protons Unique

Payload Services: Higher Data Rates for Environmental Data Relay (31Mbps in L-Band); continued Search and Rescue GOES satellites, first launched in 1994, are the backbone of the weather forecasting and environmental services in the US and across the world. 

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