Weather satellite systems may suffer under U.S. budget cuts

March 3, 2013

Count weather forecasts among the possible victims of automatic U.S. budget cuts that began last week.

The reductions hit two government satellite programs already considered “high risk’’ by federal auditors because of delays and cost increases. They may also exacerbate a coverage gap already expected to leave forecasters with a blind spot by the end of 2016.

Further setbacks in the programs would lead to less accurate forecasts of extreme weather, said Jon Malay, director of civil space and environment programs at Lockheed Martin, one of the contractors. Data from the two systems help predict tornadoes as well as hurricanes such as Sandy.

“Any cutback in funding would, necessarily, result in a delay of launch,’’ Malay said last week at a panel hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association at the U.S. Capitol. “Any delay raises the risk of gaps. Gaps are bad.’’

The two programs are run by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA.

Data from the satellites are supplied to NOAA’s National Weather Service as well as to the Defense Department, universities and commercial users.

Across-the-board spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion in the next decade kicked in Friday. Under sequestration, NOAA would have to reduce the number of its contractors by about 1,400, Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said in a recent letter to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs of the upper chamber’s Appropriations Committee.

Those reductions would also result in a two- to three-year launch delay for two so-called geostationary satellites, which would “increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,’’ Blank wrote.

NOAA typically has two geo­stationary operational environmental satellites in use, with one backup.

Launch delays in the $7.67 billion program may lead to a period of a year or longer when the system will not have a backup, according to a Government Accountability Office report this month.

The program’s contractors include Bethesda-based Lockheed, which has received $651 million for its work on the satellites since 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp., which is developing the ground system, has received $570 million since 2009, according to the data.

Even without factoring in the across-the-board cuts, a satellite for the Joint Polar Satellite System is expected to reach the end of its life before a replacement is ready, leaving forecasters with a gap that may last more than four years, according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

Contractors selected to work on the $12.9 billion program include Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon, Falls Church-based Nor­throp Grumman, McLean-based ITT Exelis and Ball Aerospace & Technologies, a unit of Broomfield, Colo.-based Ball Corp.

As of last week, NASA and NOAA have not yet explained how the satellite programs would be affected, said Eric Webster, a vice president at ITT Exelis, which makes satellite instruments.

“They really haven’t provided very specific guidance into that,’’ he said after the panel discussion. “So we’re all kind of waiting with bated breath to see what’s going to happen.’’

— Bloomberg Government

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