In 2013, with a reliance on aging weather satellites in orbit past their intended life span, the nation faced a dire possibility: a “satellite gap” that would leave forecasters blind if one or more of these critical eyes in the sky should fail.
This was a concern not only within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration but also for the Government Accountability Office, which elevated it to the unenviable category of “high risk.”
Fast-forward to today: With strong support from Congress, the civil weather satellite program is back on its feet. Several new satellites are continuously scanning our land, sea and air with remarkable clarity and accuracy — affording us the opportunity to understand and predict our environment better than ever before.
NOAA is operating the most sophisticated satellites it has ever flown in both the polar orbit (encircling the globe while passing over both poles) and the geostationary orbit (perched in a fixed position above Earth while moving at the speed of Earth’s rotation). Satellites that we launched and that have become operational in the past two years include NOAA-20, the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) mission, and the geostationary GOES-16 and GOES-17.
Satellites collect vast amounts of vital data that are fed into high-resolution computer forecast models to track weather and climate phenomena. Information from these models allow us to better protect life and property from hazards that include hurricanes stalking the U.S. coastline, atmospheric rivers aiming heavy rain and snow into the West, hot spots that can explode into raging wildfires, and the collision of air masses that can produce outbreaks of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.
Satellite data is also essential for assessing sea level, ocean currents and waves, ocean temperature and biological productivity, and for detecting harmful algae blooms. Instruments aboard NOAA-20, for example, provide scientists with high-resolution sea-surface temperature observations, ocean color and sea ice data that help us manage fisheries and protected species such as whales.
Thanks to NOAA’s steadfast work, the GAO removed the geostationary satellites from the “high risk” list in 2017, and this past week, the GAO removed the polar orbiting satellite program from the list. I commend our dedicated team in the NOAA satellite program who, along with our NASA partners and contractor workforce, applied their skill and diligence to achieve these significant accomplishments.
As we celebrate the achievements of the U.S. satellite program, we are not resting on our laurels. There is plenty more tough work ahead to ensure we launch the remaining JPSS and GOES-R constellation on time and on budget.
Stephen Volz is the assistant administrator for satellite and information services at NOAA.