WASHINGTON – The Environment Subcommittee today held a hearing titled Examining the Nation’s Current and Next Generation Weather Satellite Programs. The hearing examined the United States’ operational and planned weather satellite systems, as well as the partnerships that ensure accurate and timely forecasting capabilities.
Weather satellite programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and our European partners provide the data used to produce continuous streams of data for weather forecasts. Our weather satellite programs’ ultimate goal should be saving lives and property. Members and witnesses discussed the costs, schedules and orbits of the federal government’s weather satellite programs, as well as the potential for commercial options to mitigate the risk of a data gap.
Mr. David Powner with the Government Accountability Office today testified that aging and out-of-date satellite systems, along with a series of management problems, delays, and increased costs over many years, put the U.S. at risk for a gap in satellite coverage and data that provide vital input to weather forecasts. Without this data, American weather models’ ability to accurately predict weather events will be greatly diminished.
Environment Subcommittee Chairman Bridenstine (R-Okla.): “Further complicating these issues is the reliance the agencies place on themselves and our international partners for critical weather data. For polar orbiting satellite data, there are three primary orbits. The early-morning orbit is operated by the DOD, the mid-morning orbit by EUMETSAT’s MetOp program, our partnering satellite agency in Europe, and the early-afternoon orbit by NOAA. Eighty percent of the data that goes into our numerical weather models comes from polar-orbiting satellites. Since we rely so heavily on these satellites, it is important for these orbits to continually be filled.”
Chairman Bridenstine also emphasized that advancement in commercial weather satellites may provide substantial improvements to our forecasting abilities and mitigate the risk of a data gap.
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “NOAA is now proposing to move forward with the next series of weather satellites using the same technology as the existing series, which unfortunately has continually encountered delays, cost overruns and mismanagement. The growing private sector weather enterprise could mitigate NOAA’s shortcomings through new technologies and sources of data, but NOAA shows that it will only take action if forced to do so. If NOAA is afraid of innovation, maybe they shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what technologies are needed for improved forecasting. Commercial innovation beats the status quo of slow, costly government systems. Faster, better, and cheaper solutions take vision, competence, and courage. NOAA needs more of these qualities.”
Over the past decade, the Committee has monitored the troubled development of NOAA’s weather satellite programs, which provide vital input to weather forecasts. The largest NOAA programs are the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite System (GOES).
In 1994, as part of the Clinton-Gore administration’s Reinventing Government initiative, a Presidential Decision Directive required NOAA and the DOD to merge the civilian and military polar-orbiting satellite systems into one program, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). In 2010, this joint effort was cancelled, forcing NOAA and DOD to pursue separate polar satellite programs. NOAA is currently operating the JPSS program, with a scheduled first launch in 2017. DOD is planning on a new program called the Weather System Follow-On, which will first operate a demonstration satellite as early as 2017. Although DOD’s primary mission is for military purposes, the data is shared with NOAA and ingested into its numerical weather modeling for civilian use.
In 2011, NOAA launched a test satellite originally built under the NPOESS program, called Suomi-NPP. While this satellite was originally planned to be used for demonstration purposes, NOAA currently relies heavily on its data even though it is beyond its estimated design lifespan. Much like NOAA’s on orbit satellites, DOD currently relies heavily on a system of ageing satellites.
In addition to the programs of NOAA and DoD, the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) operates a polar satellite program in the late-morning orbit that provides data to U.S. agencies. EUMETSAT has operated a polar satellite program called MetOp since 2006, and will launch the final satellite of this program in 2018.