SpacePolicyonline.com and The Weather Channel both posted stories last week about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) “urgent” need for a new weather satellite. You can read the stories from both sites here and here. According to their posts, there is a projected satellite and data gap for sun-synchronous low earth orbiting (go here for my short lesson about that particular LEO) satellites belonging to NOAA in 2017.
“But we’re nearing the end of 2013,” you’re thinking, “2017 is three years away. What’s urgent about that?”
Good question. Remember, the government acquisition process takes a long time. I’ve written opinions about the process on this site. All the design reviews, approval boards, and so on will take at least a year (just kidding–they’ll probably take longer).
Let’s take a look at the actual Independent Review Team (IRT) report referred to by SpacePolicyonline and The Weather Channel. If you’re curious about the report, you can just go read the final report hosted by SpacePolicyonline.com, here. On page 14 of the IRT report, there’s finally a definition of what a NOAA gap would be: “the possibility of having no U.S. satellite system available to provide polar weather for the afternoon orbit.” The Weather Channel’s post does a decent job of describing why it would be good to have that kind of information from a polar LEO satellite.
There is also a bar chart on page 14 of the IRT report. It shows a bunch of satellites suddenly stop operations beginning in 2014 (NOAA-16, AQUA, NOAA-18, and NOAA-19–if you click on the NOAA names you’ll see their health status). And Suomi NPP stops right at 2017 (a year before JPSS-1 launches). Why is that? It’s something to do with what’s called “mission design life.” That phrase just means the satellites were designed to function fairly well up to a certain point in time. It’s almost a guarantee of functionality given by the satellite builders to the satellite operators. Can they operate past that time? Probably, but the guarantee starts to degrade. How quickly? Well, that’s hard to say, at least for me.
Here’s a little tidbit for you, though. Americans are very good at building robust satellites. We have satellites up there right now that are years past the end of their mission design life but still working strong (Aqua is an example–it’s design life was originally up until May 2008). So does that mean the whole slew of satellites NOAA is projecting to disappear in 2014 might continue operations? I guess the answer depends on the funding from the government for the NOAA programs, as well as the health of the satellites themselves. I think it’s the same deal for the Suomi NPP satellite stopping in 2017.
Maybe the NOAA is hedging its bets? We’ll talk about that tomorrow.