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July 11th, 2016

Challenges & Uncertainties For Crucial Weather Data From NOAA Highlighted By GAO


The availability of critical weather data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) could face some challenges and uncertainties, as specified in a new report from the GOA that was published earlier this month.

As highlighted in this report, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program has continued to make progress in developing the JPSS-1 satellite for the scheduled March 2017 launch. According to the GAO, however, the program has experienced some technical challenges which have resulted in interim milestone delays.

Additionally, NOAA faces the potential for a near-term gap in satellite coverage of eight months before the JPSS-1 satellite is launched and completes the post-launch testing (see figure). NOAA has also started to plan for future polar satellites, but uncertainties remain on the best timing for the launch of those satellites. This has occurred, in part, due to the potential for some already on orbit satellites to last longer than initially projected.


Source: GAO analysis based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Aeronautics and Space Administration data. | GAO-16-773T.

Note: The afternoon orbit is one of three primary polar orbits providing needed coverage for numerical weather models.

The GOA stated that NOAA did not provide sufficient evidence that the agency had evaluated the costs and benefits of launch scenarios for these new satellites based on updated life expectancies. Until this occurs, NOAA may not make the most efficient use of investments in the polar satellite program.

In the GAO draft report, NOAA published “fly-out charts” that depicted satellite timelines to support budget requests and appropriations discussions. The agency regularly updates their charts when key changes occur. However, the charts do not always accurately reflect data from other program documentation, such as the latest satellite schedules or assessments of satellite availability.


Artistic rendition of the JPSS-1 satellite.

NOAA also has not consistently documented their justification for chart updates or depicted lifetimes for satellites beyond their design life and has not finalized a policy for updating those charts. As a result, the information NOAA provides Congress on the fly-out charts is not as accurate as such needs to be, which could result in less-than-optimal decisions.

GAO reported in May 2016 that, although NOAA has established information security policies in key areas recommended by guidance, the JPSS program has not yet fully implemented them. Specifically, while the program has implemented multiple relevant security controls, the implementation of almost half of the recommended security controls have not yet been fully implemented and the agency did not have all of the information needed when assessing security controls and has not addressed key vulnerabilities in a timely manner.

Furthermore, NOAA has experienced 10 key information security incidents related to the JPSS ground system, including incidents regarding unauthorized access to web servers and computers. Until NOAA addresses these weaknesses, the JPSS ground system remains at high risk of compromise, said the GAO report.

NOAA is preparing to launch the second satellite in the JPSS program in March 2017, but a near-term gap in polar satellite coverage remains likely. Given the criticality of satellite data to weather forecasts and the potential impact of a satellite data gap, GAO added this area to its High-Risk List in 2013.

This statement addresses the status of the JPSS program and plans for future satellites, NOAA's efforts to depict and update satellite timelines as well as the JPSS program's implementation of key information security protections. This statement is based on a May 2016 report on JPSS and a draft report on satellite timelines. To develop the draft report, GAO reviewed agency procedures for updating satellite timelines, compared timelines to best practices and agency documentation, and interviewed officials.

In the GAO's May 2016 report, they recommend that NOAA assess the costs and benefits of different launch decisions based on updated satellite life expectancies and address deficiencies in their information security program. NOAA concurred with these recommendations. GAO's draft report includes recommendations to NOAA to improve the accuracy, consistency, and documentation supporting updates to satellite timelines, and to revise and finalize its draft policy governing timeline updates.

The GOA report is currently at the Department of Commerce for comment.

Download and view the complete report in PDF format by accessing this direct link...