Concern over a potential gap in NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather data, caused by delay in launching a new geostationary satellite, led two subcommittees of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to hold a a hearing titled, “An Overview of the Nation’s Weather Satellite Programs and Policies.”
NOAA currently operates three GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) satellites, two of which deliver data for the Eastern and the Western United States, and one that serves as a backup. The operational lifetimes of the GOES satellites currently delivering data are estimated to end in mid-2016 and mid-2020, with the backup satellite’s operational lifetime ending in 2019. A next-generation GOES satellite, GOES-R, to replace the current backup was supposed to be launched in March 2016, however due to the number of remaining test to be conducted, the launch date had to be shifted to October 2016. Once in space, GOES-R will first be subjected to a 6-month testing period, only beginning to deliver usable data in March 2017. That leaves a period in 2016 to 2017, during which there will only be two GOES satellites with no backup delivering crucial weather data. Therefore, if technical issues arise, there may be a data gap.
David Powner (Director, Information Technology Management Issues; Government Accountability Office) criticized NOAA’s lack of communication and transparency regarding the state of their weather satellites in space and under construction. NOAA had increased the lifespan of the currently operational GOES satellites after a hearing in February 2015 on the same topic, and Powner noted, “a key question is why NOAA did not disclose this lifespan extension sooner” since NOAA had said to have made the decision based on data from 2005. Dr. Stephen Volz (Assistant Administrator, National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services; NOAA) explained that only in the spring of 2015 did NOAA have sufficient data on the GOES satellites to reflect the increased lifespan.
Chairman of the Environment Subcommittee Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and several committee members urged NOAA to be more transparent and to be in regular communication with the committee to avoid situations such as the current one. Powner pointed out that NOAA currently carries out annual reviews on their JPSS (Joint Polar Satellite System) satellites and suggested to do the same for the GOES satellites.
Given that delays in launch also lead to additional cost, the possibility of increased collaboration with the private sector, namely purchase of raw data, was also brought up at the hearing. Concerns similar to those raised at a hearing in October were raised, and Dr. Volz said NOAA is in contact with commercial partners to explore opportunities and that the agency is working on policies to ensure that acquired commercial data can also be used and distributed.