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NOAA Seeks Ideas from Public on How to Mitigate Gap in Polar Orbit Data

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2012
Updated: 17-Nov-2012 04:22 PM

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seeking comments, suggestions and innovative ideas from the public on how to mitigate an anticipated gap in weather satellite data from NOAA's polar orbiting satellites in the 2016-2017 time frame.

NOAA launched the last of its legacy Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) in 2009.  It is designated NOAA-19.   NOAA is now engaged in the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program, but the first in that series is not scheduled for launch until 2016 and will require many months of testing and calibration before it can enter operational status in 2017.   NOAA will use data from NASA's Suomi-NPP satellite, launched last year, as a bridge between NOAA-19 and JPSS-1, but Suomi-NPP was designed as a test satellite and its design life is only three years.  Although satellites often exceed their design lives, NOAA must plan as though the satellite does not last longer than designed.  It is concerned that in the 2016-2017 time frame it will end up with no operational polar orbiting satellites.

DOD has its own polar orbiting weather satellites, as does Europe.  The weather forecasts to which Americans have become accustomed rely on data from a combination of the U.S. and European satellites, which carry different instruments and are in complementary polar orbits:  DOD satellites in the "early morning" orbit, European satellites in the "mid-morning" orbit, and NOAA satellites in the "afternoon" orbit.  (NOAA also has another set of satellites, called GOES, in geostationary orbit.)

NOAA insists that without its polar orbiting satellites in the afternoon orbit, weather forecasts would not be nearly as precise as they are now.

Several recent studies have confirmed concerns about a gap in coverage by NOAA's polar orbiting satellites.  An Independent Review Team headed by Tom Young, for example, said the projected gap between the end of Suomi-NPP and when JPSS-1 is operational is "at least 18 months."

In the Federal Register announcement seeking ideas from the public, NOAA says that it is already studying "substitute satellite observations, alternative non-satellite data, weather modeling, and data assimilation improvements." The announcement reaches out to a broader audience to ensure that the agency can "examine all potential solutions ... on how to preserve the quality and timeliness" of its forecasts.

Instructions on how to offer comments are in the Federal Register notice; they are due by December 19, 2012.

NOAA finds itself in this dilemma because an effort to merge the NOAA and DOD polar orbiting weather satellite programs failed.  Called the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), it encountered repeated overruns and schedule delays and was terminated in 2010.  JPSS is NOAA's substitute for NPOESS.  DOD is still deciding how it wants to proceed for satellites to fulfill its needs.  It has two of its legacy satellites -- which have different instruments than NOAA satellites -- still awaiting launch, so time is not as crucial in that case.


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