For Weather Satellites, Forecast Is Cloudy

By ROBERT LEE HOTZ

As hurricane season gathered force, the main U.S. weather satellite watching the eastern seaboard failed last month for the second time in a year. The difficulties with the seven-year-old weather satellite are a symptom of a broader problem: Scientists are losing their orbital eyes on Earth. Lee Hotz reports. Photo: AP.

The main U.S. weather satellite watching the eastern seaboard malfunctioned last month for the second time in a year, underscoring the hazards of aging satellites that monitor the planet as a threatening hurricane season gets under way.

Engineers got it running again. But the difficulties with the seven-year-old weather satellite, called GOES-13, are a symptom of a broader problem, federal, congressional and university analysts say. Scientists are losing one by one their orbital eyes on Earth, at a time when space-based sensors have become indispensable for monitoring weather, natural disasters and the atmosphere.

Weather forecasters soon will lose key satellite images and atmospheric measurements for a year or substantially more, because GOES-13 and another spacecraft are expected to fail before replacements can be launched, federal and congressional auditors said. About 500 federal projects and private contractors—including commercial firms that use the images for TV weather forecasts—rely on data from the satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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“NOAA is having a real crisis with regard to the weather satellites,” said atmospheric scientist Dennis Hartmann at the University of Washington in Seattle, who heads a National Research Council committee that monitors Earth-observation satellite programs.

Signals from these highflying measuring devices provide the raw data for forecasts, rainfall estimates and drought reports, land-use surveys and air-pollution studies, seasonal wildfire forecasts and sea-ice updates, to name a few applications. Without the data, it is harder to track threatening weather, build accurate climate models or monitor global pollution, experts said.

“We need all the data we can get—every bit and byte we can get down from space,” said senior system engineer Stacey Boland at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, who is a member of the research council committee. “These older platforms—well past their warranty—are starting to falter.”

All told, 14 of the 23 active satellites monitored by NASA’s Earth Observing System Project Science Office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have exceeded their engineering design life, with few replacements in view. The number of Earth-monitoring sensors in orbit aboard such spacecraft is expected to drop to fewer than 30 by the end of the decade from 110 last year, as aging satellites fail, costs soar and space missions go awry, according to the National Research Council.

NOAA normally relies on two types of weather satellites: One set, including GOES-13, in “geosynchronous” orbit 22,300 miles above the same fixed spot over the U.S., and a second set of satellites that travels in a lower polar orbit and scans the entire Earth every day. One polar orbiter—itself already a temporary replacement—is nearing the end of its estimated life span.

NOAA, NASA and the Defense Department have tried since 1994 to develop new polar-orbiting weather satellites, but their joint effort was racked by mismanagement, billions in cost overruns and technical challenges, said information-technology expert David Powner at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

NOAA’s current $12.9 billion effort to replace the polar spacecraft is so far behind schedule that the next satellite won’t be launched until 2017 at the earliest, which is past the design lifetime of the youngest polar-orbiting satellite currently in orbit, according to GAO auditors and the Commerce Department’s Inspector General.

As a result, experts expect to start losing some weather-satellite data as soon as next year, with a gap in satellite coverage lasting from 17 to 53 months.

At the same time, NOAA’s $10.9 billion program to build new geosynchronous weather satellites is struggling.

A replacement for GOES-13 is scheduled to launch in 2015. Federal and congressional auditors, though, warn it may be a year late. Even then, some of its advanced sensors won’t be ready. Budget cuts related to the so-called sequester may delay the launch an additional two to three years.

Senior NOAA officials this month didn’t want to be questioned about their effort to replace the weather satellites, turning down requests for interviews. In a statement, they said NOAA “continues to develop mitigation plans for any potential gap in satellite coverage. These plans will be reassessed on a biannual basis to account for new developments as they occur.”

So far, GOES-13 has survived the hard knocks of space.

The Boeing Co.-built spacecraft normally tracks weather along the Atlantic coast, but on May 22 it stopped transmitting images. By June 10, NOAA satellite engineers concluded it had been knocked off balance when a tiny space rock smashed into its solar panels. As a stopgap, NOAA engineers activated their sole backup weather satellite while they scrambled to repair the errant spacecraft.

“We were essentially riding on our spare tire,” said atmospheric scientist Marshall Shepherd at the University of Georgia, who is president of the American Meteorological Society. “And that spare is in the twilight of its career.”

Write to Robert Lee Hotz at [email protected]