Degraded weather forecasts a certainty in 2017, says Commerce IG

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A gap in polar-satellite earth observation satellites will in all probability occur despite a last minute infusion of funds into the Joint Polar Satellite System, according to a Sept. 30 Commerce Department office of inspector general report.

The gap will likely be smaller than anticipated, the report says--9 to 21 months rather than 18 to 30 months--but will likely occur when the 5-year lifespan of the NPOESS Preparatory Project, or NPP, satellite ends in early 2017. Commerce auditors anticipate that the earliest JPSS-1 could begin transmitting data after undergoing in-orbit calibration and validation would be late 2017.

The result will be degraded weather forecasts and a break in the climate record, auditors say. Forecasts at 3 days and beyond are particularly reliant on polar satellite data, the report notes, "and the accuracy of forecasts of significant weather events at these timeframes is crucial to protecting lives and property."

NPP is set for launch later this month and will assume an afternoon polar orbit--but auditors see much to fault with NPP, too, stating that it might not even last 5 years. NPP originally was meant to be a research and risk reduction mission for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a joint NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Air Force program the Obama administration split into constituent civilian and military parts in February 2010. (The civilian successor program is JPSS; the military's is the Defense Weather Satellite System.)

With the NOAA-19 satellite due to reach its lifespan limit in the first half of 2013, NPP was pressed into service as a full-fledged operational earth observation satellite. However, most NPP instruments were managed under the NPOESS contract with Northrop Grumman, and the program 'has limited government oversight and a history of technical issues," the report says.

Schedule compression to make the October 2011 launch window introduce additional risks, including the use of non-operationally configured versions of ground system software.   

For more:
- download the report, OIG-11-034-A (.pdf)

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