America’s Weather-Tracking Satellites Are in Trouble — Popular Mechanics

A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam -- Photo USBR
A high desert thunderstorm lights up the sky behind Glen Canyon Dam — Photo USBR

From Popular Mechanics (Kathryn Miles):

When Superstorm Sandy nearly sank New York City two years ago, we knew it was going to happen. Same with snowmageddon in 2010: D.C. got more snow than a Saskatoon Christmas, and, again, we knew it was going to happen. Those were both devastating storms, but we were as prepared for them as we could have been, thanks to two very important satellites. Now, however, as superstorms become more frequent, those two very important satellites are running out of time.

To pull together your five-day forecast, meteorologists rely on two types of satellites. The first sits 22,000 miles up, capturing basic information on a fixed location. The second orbits the poles, 500 miles up, filling in crucial image gaps and, more important, providing essential information about cloud formation, surface temperatures, and atmospheric conditions—the data that help us know where a storm is heading and how big it will be when it gets there.

Those polar-orbiting satellites, a primary and its backup, are the ones in crisis. The primary satellite—a short-term pathfinder built to test emerging technologies—was never really intended for use. Its backup isn’t much better: an aging satellite with failing sensors that passed its predicted life expectancy last year. We would send up a replacement now, but it’s still being built. When it is ready, should it survive launch, it could take until as late as 2018 to transmit usable data. Which means that, depending on when our current satellites stop working, the U.S. could be without crucial data for years. That’s worse than inconvenient. It could cost us trillions of dollars, and hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

It didn’t have to be this way. It didn’t used to be: For most of the 1970s and ’80s a partnership between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ensured that we always had two fully operational birds flying, with a backup in the barn. It was, says James Gleason, senior NASA scientist, a golden age. That all changed in 1994, when President Clinton tried to cut costs by combining the NOAA and Department of Defense weather-satellite programs. The marriage was doomed from the start. Both organizations came with top-heavy bureaucracies and their own specific needs. Together they formed a dysfunctional agency defined by budget overruns, infighting, and passive– aggressive stalemates. In all the turmoil, work on any new satellites slowed to a crawl, and any surplus dried up. By the time President Obama separated the two organizations in 2010, NOAA had to scramble to pull together a new program. As a stopgap, it sent up the only option left, our current satellite—that demonstration model, with a life span of only three to five years.

Gleason predicts that the satellite’s spacecraft will last long beyond that span. But those instruments. NASA engineers have what he calls serious uncertainties regarding them. Three were developed under the previous satellite program, which means they didn’t undergo NASA’s rigorous review process. (A U.S. Government Accountability report called the workmanship of these instruments “poor.”) When private-sector and government scientists are asked about them, they literally knock on wood.

The best-case scenario has them knocking for years. And although engineers at Ball Aerospace and Technologies in Boulder, Colorado, are currently putting the finishing touches on a replacement, NASA doesn’t expect it to be launch-ready until 2017. Even after launch it’ll take another year of testing before the satellite is fully operational. And that’s if it doesn’t explode. “That’s just a fact of life,” Gleason says. “We could have a really bad day on the launch.”

That’s where we get into trouble. Should the new satellite explode (or just fail—a distinct possibility, considering satellites’ high early-mortality rates), we’re stuck waiting for the next version. Scheduled date of completion: 2022.

If that happens, NOAA has proposed a variety of mitigation plans, from targeted jet missions to private and international outsourcing. The federal government recently signed agreements with Japan, Canada, and Europe to secure support in the case of catastrophic satellite loss, but there are no guarantees those programs will provide the data we need—or that we can afford them.

The most comprehensive solution happens to also be the one that upsets the most people: The Chinese currently have two polar orbiting satellites in commission and they’re about to launch a third. But since the Chinese weather program is tied directly to its military—and since, you know, it’s China—the idea of buying data from them has sparked more than a small firestorm on Capitol Hill.

Whatever the solution, we need to decide on one. Quickly. Meteorologists want to predict the weather with the best tools available, and that’s getting harder every day. They know that another Sandy or snowmageddon is inevitable. It’s just no longer a given that we’ll see it coming.

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