A "pretty bleak picture" for a weather satellite program

Later this morning a Delta 2 rocket is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying the Aquarius/SAC-D earth sciences satellite to orbit. That mission, designed to study ocean salinity and its effect on global climate, has not been immune to the delays that affect many satellite programs: it was originally planned to launch in September 2008. That delay is primarily an inconvenience for researchers, but delays in another, much larger earth observation program could have serious consequences for the country, one official warned last week. Speaking at the Aerospace 2011: The Road Ahead conference held last Friday by Women in Aerospace in Arlington, Virginia, Kathryn Sullivan, a former astronaut and the new assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction at NOAA, said that delays in developing the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) caused by a lack of funding would lead to delays in the development of the first JPSS satellite to the point where a gap in weather data was increasingly likely as existing satellites reach the end of their lives. "Current year funding for NOAA already assures that we'll have about an 18-month delay in procuring JPSS-1," she said. "When you run the satellite lifetimes and likely failure rates, that suggests we have a very high probability-over 70 percent-of having a gap in the polar data streams in the 2014 to 2016 timeframe." She said that while spending plans for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 have yet to be finalized, it was unlikely that the program would get funding "significantly much north" of current projections. "It's a pretty bleak picture," she concluded. So what are the implications of a gap in data from polar-orbiting weather satellites? She noted in her speech that the data from satellites in general, which account for 93 percent of the data used in forecast models, are essential to long-term forecasting. "Polar birds are absolutely vital to our two- to five-day forecasts for the entire Earth," she said. "You now have to sample and measure the entire globe to make a two-plus-day forecast of any point on the globe." In one example, she demonstrated the effect of such data on forecast models for the "Snowmageddon" winter storm that dropped over two feet of snow on Washington, DC, and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region of the US in February 2010. While forecast models that used the satellite closely predicted the actual snowfall amounts several days out, those without the data underestimated the amounts by about 50 percent. If the data provided by polar-orbiting satellites is so crucial to weather forecasting, why is it so difficult to win funding to keep the JPSS satellites on schedule? Sullivan blamed the difficulties in getting a "ramp" of funding needed for development programs in general, and in the current fiscal environment in particular. "You end up with three years in a row where you have to provide a large slug of procurement dollars to keep the program moving on the pace you originally projected," she said. "Washington doesn't like budget ramps. Washington likes nice, easy increments." Combine that with current pressures to reduce federal spending, she added, and "you have the perfect storm of misaligned fiscal biorhythms." (One contributing factor she didn't dwell upon was the predecessor of JPSS, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which suffered delays and cost overruns so severe that last year the administration effectively cancelled it, breaking it into separate civil and defense programs.) Sullivan said NOAA was working with the administration and Congress to try and secure sufficient funding for JPSS in future years' budgets. "We're working on a daily basis with OMB and the Congress to see what can be done to ameliorate this problem for the current year and set up for the years ahead in the next rounds of budgeting," she said. She added that NOAA was also looking for potential commercial and international partnerships to address the potential data gap. "We're working so very hard to do everything we can to assure the continuity of this program, these observations," she said. "It will be a sad and terrible day to retreat decades back on that service capability."

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