Blind Spot Looming for Weather Satellites That Predicted Sandy

Blind Spot Looming for Weather Satellites That Predicted Sandy
A satellite image of Hurricane Sandy as it moved inland across the mid-Atlantic region on October 30, 2012 in the Atlantic Ocean. Photograph: NASA via Getty Images

Forecasters who warned of devastation before the biggest Atlantic storm in history hit the East Coast may be staring into a dimmer crystal ball four years from now.

A weather satellite system under development has struggled with delays and costs that have soared to $12.9 billion. The result is that the U.S. will probably have a blind spot in the system by the end of 2016, with one polar satellite reaching the end of its life before a replacement can be launched.

The coverage gap may last as long as 4 1/2 years and lead to “less accurate and timely weather prediction models used to support weather forecasting,” government auditors said in June. A replacement satellite won’t launch soon enough to plug the hole, said David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office.

“You get to a point where you can’t buy back schedule,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think everyone has agreed that’s the case.”

The polar satellite with the fading lifespan is part of a program run by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It’s among a constellation of U.S. and European orbiters supplying forecasters with up-to-date weather and climate information.

Severe Weather

Data from those satellites are used nationally to warn of severe weather events such as Sandy, the superstorm that cut electricity to 8 million customers and killed at least 75 people in the U.S.

The replacement satellite, one of two planned for the new Joint Polar Satellite System, was scheduled to launch in 2014 and has been delayed until at least 2017, Powner said. Based on the estimated life of the polar satellite already in orbit, forecasters should anticipate a data gap of between 17 and 53 months, according to written testimony Powner delivered to Congress in June.

The coverage hole would mean forecasters would have to rely on less frequent data used to develop weather models and warn of extreme events such as hurricanes.

“The polar data is very important to tracking storm intensity, speed and direction,” he said.

‘Mitigation Plan’

Powner said officials at the weather tracking agency have approved a “mitigation plan” to deal with the potential data gap, though they haven’t yet shared it with the GAO. John Leslie, a spokesman for NOAA, didn’t confirm whether a plan has been approved.

Options for dealing with the gap include negotiating for more access to data from European satellites and increasing use of alternate data sources such as radar planes, Powner said.

Delays to the new polar satellite have frustrated some U.S. lawmakers.

“The program has had one problem after another,” said Representative Brad Miller, a Democrat from North Carolina and a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “It’s had extreme cost overruns. It has been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back, and it’s hard to know exactly why it has been such a problem.”

The delayed launch is in part due to reduced funding for the satellite program in fiscal 2011, when the program received $382 million, instead of the $1.1 billion that was requested, NOAA officials said last year. The second polar satellite is scheduled to launch in 2022.

No Choice

The White House restructured the polar-orbiting satellite program in February 2010 after costs for the old program, known as the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, had more than doubled to about $15 billion from a 2002 estimate of about $7 billion, according to a May 2010 GAO report.

NOAA officials have agreed to cap funding for the program at $12.9 billion through 2028, a threshold that is forcing the agency to remove some features from the planned satellite system, according to the GAO.

Contractors selected to work on the program include Ball Aerospace & Technologies, a unit of Broomfield, Colorado-based Ball Corp.; Raytheon Co., based in Waltham, Massachusetts; Northrop Grumman Corp., based in Falls Church, Virginia; and Exelis Inc., based in McLean, Virginia.

The replacement satellite is so crucial that even with the escalating costs, Congress had no choice but to continue funding it, Miller said.

“We couldn’t just pull the plug,” he said in a phone interview. “We couldn’t afford to give up on it. We had to have a satellite.”

Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who chairs a subcommittee that oversees NOAA’s budget, has proposed transferring authority for the program to NASA.

“The government needs a better way of building our weather satellites, because the status quo is unacceptable,” Mikulski said in an e-mailed statement.

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