[SatNews] The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) $11.3 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program has recently completed significant development activities and remains within its cost and schedule baselines; however, recent cost growth on key components is likely unsustainable, and schedule delays could increase the potential for a near-term satellite data gap.
In addition, while the program has reduced its estimate for a near-term gap in the afternoon orbit, its gap assessment was based on incomplete data. A gap in satellite data may occur earlier and last longer than NOAA anticipates. The figure below depicts a possible 11-month gap, in which the current satellite lasts its full expected 5-year life (until October 2016) and the next satellite is launched in March 2017 and undergoes on-orbit testing until September 2017.
NOAA's $10.8 billion Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) program has also made major progress on its first satellite. However, the program has continued to experience delays in major milestones and has not efficiently closed defects on selected components, both of which could increase the risk of a launch delay. As the GOES-R program approaches its expected launch date of March 2016, it faces a potential gap of more than a year during which an on-orbit backup satellite would not be available. Specifically, there could be no backup from April 2015 (when an operational satellite is expected to reach its end-of-life) through September 2016 (after GOES-R completes its post-launch test period). Any delay to the GOES-R launch date would extend the length of time without a backup satellite and, if an operational satellite were to experience a problem during that time, there could be a gap in GOES coverage. NOAA has improved its plan to mitigate gaps in satellite coverage, but it does not yet include steps for mitigating a delayed launch.
Why GAO Did This Study
NOAA is procuring the next generation of polar and geostationary weather satellites to replace aging satellites that are approaching the end of their useful lives. Both new sets of satellites will provide critical weather forecasting data over the next two decades. GAO has reported that gaps in polar satellite coverage and in backup coverage for geostationary satellites are likely in the near future. Given the criticality of satellite data to weather forecasts, concerns that problems and delays on the new satellite acquisition programs will result in gaps in the continuity of critical satellite data, and the impact of such gaps on the health and safety of the U.S. population, GAO added mitigating weather satellite gaps to its High-Risk List in 2013 and it remains on the 2015 update to the High-Risk List.
GAO was asked to testify on two recently released reports on NOAA's satellite programs, specifically on (1) the JPSS program's status, the potential for a gap and mitigation alternatives, and contingency plans, and (2) the GOESR program's status, potential for a gap, and contingency plans.
What GAO Recommends
In its recently issued reports, GAO recommended that NOAA update its polar data gap assessment, address shortfalls in both its polar and geostationary contingency plans, and prioritize mitigation projects most likely to address a gap in polar satellite coverage. NOAA concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified steps it is taking to implement them.