Polar satellite gap will degrade weather forecasting

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An anticipated gap in afternoon polar-orbiting weather satellite coverage in 2016 and 2017 could cause an appreciable impact on weather forecasting, according to testimony by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials.

A study by NOAA that examined the impact a lack of polar orbiting satellite data would have had on the snowmageddon February 2010 snow storm experienced by mid-Atlantic states shows that without the data, "the forecast would have significantly underestimated the amount of snow and the storm's track," said Mary Kizca. The NOAA assistant administrator of the National Environmental Satellite, Data And Information Service testified before the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on energy and environment. 

The afternoon polar satellite gap could occur thanks to the 5-year lifespan of the NPOESS Preparatory Project orbiter ending before the first Joint Polar Satellite System orbiters is ready to launch and has been calibrated in 2017. The NPP orbiter achieved orbit in late 2011 and could last longer than 5 years, Kizca said, "but we can't plan on that."

The Defense Department, meanwhile, announced earlier this year that it has halted work on the Defense Weather Satellite. DWS was the military portion created by cancelation in February 2010 of the joint military-civilian National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program (the civilian portion is now the JPSS). Funding for DWSS development was zeroed out in fiscal 2012 appropriations; instead, Congress appropriated $125 million for a "weather satellite follow-on" without providing much detail. Fiscal 2012 appropriations also provide $43 million for DWSS, presumably for contract termination costs to DWSS prime contractor Northrop Grumman.

In response to a media inquiry, an Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Defense Weather Satellite System spokeswoman said the military is in the "early stages of the analysis process to define the requirements and plans for a new satellite system."

Cancelation of the DWSS won't create a coverage gap as far as morning satellite data is concerned, Air Force officials also said. The service still has two Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites and has modified them to extend their operational life beyond the original 5-year specification, officials said in a prepared statement.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimony and webcast available)

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