Category Archives: NOAA

1980: Mt. Saint Helens from Space

Imagine being this close while the mountain is doing that. Image from http://svtmarcq.e-monsite.com/.

I was only 10 years old when Mt. Saint Helens erupted in 1980.  I remember the newspapers with pictures of the volcano spewing ash and smoke.  I remember seeing pictures of cars in Spokane covered in the ash from that angry mountain.  I remember the little cylinders of ash enterprising business-people sold to people who wanted a little piece of that natural history.  And this was while I was living with my family in the High Desert in Southern California.

But I don’t recall ever seeing any pictures of the active volcano from space.  Wired.com posted this article, which shows not just pictures, but two videos (kind of) of Mt. Saint Helens as it’s blowing its top.  The first one shows the impressive ash cloud, but the ash cloud is somewhat obscured by regular clouds (clouds in the Pacific Northwest?  Go figure.)–the bane of all regular imagery.  The second video, however, the one using infrared, shows just how far the ash cloud spread and how quickly.

The satellite that took these images was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) GOES-1 weather satellite.  It was a fairly old satellite already, launched in 1975 when computers were probably still the size of continents.  It continued to collect environmental data until it was deactivated in 1985.  While the images of Mt. Saint Helens’ eruption are pretty nifty, the analysts and scientists who worked on analyzing the data probably took some time to put the images together (if anyone knows different, please let me know), so they weren’t available in real-time or near-real-time.

Literally a blast from the past, coming from space.  Wired’s article is definitely interesting, if only to watch the videos.

 

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The Slowness of Being Government and Its Space Technology

Image from Wikimedia. Click to Embiggen.

From a Softpedia news post, a writer conjectures mainly about the United States Air Force’s (USAF) X-37B space drone and what it might mean to space warfare.  It’s a decent, thought-provoking article, so you may wish to read it.  But there’s an assumption made within the article:  the government has the best, most sophisticated space toys.

As stated in the post, one agency giving away optical satellites to another agency is something to ponder.  But it might be more of one agency’s admission there’s a lack of money issue rather than, as the author implies, the existence of better technology ready to be used by the suddenly generous agency.  The giveaway might be prompted by other issues.  Maybe the program the satellites fall under is going away.  It could be the ground infrastructure can’t handle more satellites.  Maybe launching more satellites is just too costly.  But one shouldn’t just assume the newer optical satellites we don’t know about are better than the ones given away (although it can be fun to think about).  After all, the optics of those old satellites could still have been reused with a newer image processing chip.  But that can get expensive, and will take time.

Anyone who has been involved in government agencies, whether the NRO, NGA, NSA, or the MDA, knows how many things go slowly.  And slowly in this instance applies to the process of acquiring and building the satellite payloads, which takes so long that things just get outdated.  It’s why SpaceX chafes at government plodding at every turn.  The slow pace doesn’t mean the tech isn’t useful, but the tech on government satellites is typically a decade behind the tech a US citizen walks around with today–even if the government satellite payload tech was ahead of its time at launch time.  I won’t say this happens all the time, but it happens more often than people like to think.

Part of the mystique of government space technology has to do with NASA’s achievements back in history.  Part of it is likely the sense that with all that money being spent, surely something “cool” will come out of a particular program.  But history is not today.  And, while maybe some of the money goes to technology development, a fair bit of it goes elsewhere.  A lot of money spent in these programs is on people’s expertise in older or arcane technologies.  Some money is spent enhancing the robustness of the technology, and “buying down” risks with constant reviews and inspections, making sure there’s as little opportunity for something to go wrong as possible.  The government also tries to ensure there’s a way to retain the expertise of old and arcane technology (spending more money on the expert so he/she is available).

This happens naturally.  Government employees, whether they’re civilian or military, rely on this ever-present expertise.  It’s the nature of the job that forces this to happen.  The expert will always be there, until retirement or death.  The government employee, on the other hand, might work three years on a program, then move on to something else.  So money is spent to keep that expertise close by, a crutch for the government to lean on, because it bought obscure tech to begin with.  Maybe more often than is admitted, a lot of the older programs become non-viable because the expertise goes away.  It falls further behind.

And government satellite technology will likely fall even further behind, given the explosion of small satellite building going on (in spite of high expenditures in government satellites) around the world.  The small satellites are so inexpensive, they are almost disposable.  But because the investment is so small, there will be quicker and more iterations of satellite payloads.  Each iteration will lead to smaller and better payloads.  Different payloads will be built–ones the government and bigger companies will never have thought of because of risk and cost.  And unlike the government process, these small satellites are built in a nearly unmanaged environment, coming from the wackiest ideas of an eccentric millionaire or  students who just don’t know better.  It will be those people and their satellites that will have the greatest impact on space and space warfare (should it occur).  There’s something similar happening to space planes, too.  More players entering, more interesting space planes designed and flown (eventually).  All the while, the X-37B will still be costly to launch, require range time, and need a rocket core to launch it.  All of this my conjecture??  Sure, but maybe a more realistic one than the Softpedia post about the X-37B.

The X-37B, while interesting, is already halfway to the Smithsonian.

 

 

Why Space Matters: GEO Satellite operations, Part 1–Going GEO

One of these things is just like the other…

In an earlier post regarding the United States Air Force replacement of their Defense Support Program satellites with Space Based Infrared ones, there was a question posed to you:  What do both the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) and Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites have in common, aside from the infrared sensor payload?

You could’ve said they are both operated by the Air Force and you wouldn’t have been wrong.  But the answer (the “right” one ;-)) sought after was this:  they are both satellites in a geosynchronous orbit (GEO).  This orbit, if you believe Wikipedia as a reliable source, is 26,199 miles from the Earth’s center.  It’s a rather special orbit and one, whether you know it or not, you rely on every day.

…One of these things is not the same…

A comparison and reminder is in order, though.  Remember the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and why some organizations use satellites in that orbit?  There’s more about LEO in these lessons.  A short summary of those lessons follows.  The LEO satellite is closer to the Earth than the GEO—much closer:  99 to 1200 miles from the Earth’s surface.  So, let’s do the old “driving a car on the freeway” comparison again:  if you’re in a car on a freeway, and the car in front of you is close.  So close, you not only can make out the plate registration number, but the fact the numbers are raised, dirt specks, etc.  That’s what a LEO satellite gives you:  an extremely good, detailed “view.”  But it doesn’t give you much more than the number because you are so close.  You might not see the make of the car, the color of the car, brake lights, etc.

That’s where a geosynchronous satellite comes in.  If you’ve watched the evening news weather report, then chances are good you’ve seen what a GEO weather satellite can do.  It shows you the bigger picture (depending on how the satellite’s image sensor payload is designed).  Just like the infrared Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites’ (GOES) image below:

From the NOAA’s GOES Geostationary satellite server (click to embiggen).

Do you see how the entire “disk” of the Earth is in view of the GOES image sensor?  Unlike the LEO satellites, GOES just takes one picture—and suddenly the whole of the Earth can be seen.  LEO satellites need to go around the Earth multiple times to get the same image (almost).

Just this fact alone is advantageous to whoever is operating the GEO satellite (in this case, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service).  And this time, we will not be covering only imagery satellites, but a few other ones hanging out in GEO, too.  Stay tuned for the next few lessons…

NOAA’s low hanging problem–Part 8

Let’s talk about reality and inertia in a government organization, then.  Those two words are why the Independent Review Team’s (IRT’s) satellite “gap-filler” recommendation in its 2013 assessment will turn out to be a lot more taxpayer money spent with miniscule return.  The reality is the IRT’s recommendation is to and for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an organization still unable to get the original Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R satellite programs on track.  What the recommendation means, hypothetically, is another study would also need to be conducted to figure out the fastest way to get a gap-filler satellite constellation out there.

“Let me tell you something about TPS reports.”–a broken process

Of course, these are all guesses.  But maybe these are educated guesses, so let’s start.  The process of figuring out the fastest way to get satellites to a gap-filler constellation, once identified, would likely have to go through another process: a series of reviews (meetings), identifying key decision areas, identifying all stakeholders and defining their involvement, develop an initial and revised budget, then be coordinated through layers of managers for approval, more reviews, etc.  And don’t forget, there will also likely be a study about which would be the best payloads to use on these gap-filler satellites (should they go with the IRT’s recommendation, or add more?).  Then the stakeholders would have reviews about why those payloads are the best, lots of graphs and charts would be produced and more.

Of course, more people would need to be added to the NOAA program offices, because the current ones are already dealing with the JPSS and GOES-R programs (and apparently, they have issues).  Remember, more people equals more money.  Then, the new people would have to deal with the same upper managers the other NOAA programs had to deal with.

All of this—studies, processes, people, reviews–is organizational inertia, which all bureaucracies cherish.  An established bureaucracy is an unbending one.  An established and confused bureaucracy bends, loops, spirals, and obfuscates.  Considering the IRT’s assessments, which bureaucracy is the one the JPSS program most resembles?

The envelope, please…

And, here’s the kicker, the IRT also listed one issue, which while great sounding, is akin to switching horses mid-stream:  the JPSS team is not quite finished adopting the GOES-R governance model.  It was still a yellow issue according to the IRT.  So more time and money is being spent on restructuring the JPSS program office to mirror the GOES-R program office.  What about the time and money needed to work on JPSS?

Have any of you heard joke about the CEO talking to his incumbent and the three envelopes?  My revised version goes like this:

A new CEO asked the outgoing CEO for advice about dealing with different crises in the company.  The old CEO told the new one there were three envelopes in his top office desk drawer and to open one per crisis.  So everything seems fine until six months later, the company’s premier updated product was going to be late.  The new, frustrated, CEO opens the enveloped marked “1.”  Inside is a note—it says, “Blame the old CEO.”  The new CEO clings to this advice like barnacles to a ship’s hull and follows it.  Things seem to get better. 

But then, six months after that, a new crisis arises—no one is buying the company’s product.  The new CEO races to his office and tears open the enveloped marked “2.”  Inside, like the first envelope, is a note, but it contains just one word: “Reorg.”   Heartened by this rock-solid advice, the newly seasoned CEO implements the most thorough reorganization the company had seen in years.  And the company rebounded. 

The product, with some smart tweaking, was selling.  Unfortunately,the tweaking also made the product produce an unpleasant odor, and so the product didn’t sell, plus the company’s stock tanked.  The CEO wasn’t worried about these problems, though–he had the third envelope.  He opened the third envelope, expecting a note.  And there was.  On it was scribbled “Take three envelopes…”

In some ways, then, the IRT has opened the second envelope for the NOAA, and the “gap-filler” satellite solution is a re-org.  The IRT recognizes the established management cruft, the processes established for the sake of process, and the extra reviews are all a part of a program that likely won’t be fixed anytime soon, in spite of how positive the 2013 assessment sounds.

At the same time, the IRT didn’t, at least in the written assessment, suggest the programmatic model to follow for a streamlined and successful program.  The IRT is allowing the NOAA, whose processes the IRT itself identified (in a way) as already slow and cumbersome, to figure out what to choose, and then design the program from there.  It’s kind of the equivalent of the government approaching Goldman Sachs for advice about the best way to buy securities backed by risky mortgages–AFTER they’ve already publicly established a penchant for making bad decisions regarding that topic.

Wrapping it up

Is there true urgent need for building gap-filler satellites?  Not really.  Not urgent in the way a normal person might define the word.  Not urgent in the way an ambulance responds to an accident.  But it’s frustrating to see news outlets report basically a public release, repeating the urgent need, without looking into it closely and asking questions.  This, unfortunately, has been the norm for a while, and not just for this story.

Is there a chance the gap-filler satellite options would work?  Maybe.  But there are better, less expensive options, already discussed in post #4 of this series.  Ones not requiring the second envelope to even be considered.  Ones allowing the NOAA to focus on the one thing they are supposed to do with the JPSS program:  build a *!%#@ weather satellite for the nation, on time and in budget.

NOAA’s low hanging problem–Part 7

The last post, part 6, went into detail about the problems the Independent Review Team (IRT) brought forward to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding its satellite programs.  These were the problems the IRT found and documented in their 2012 assessment report:  Oversight and decision process, governance, JPSS Gap, programs, and budget.  The 2013 assessment report that followed was the IRT’s attempt to see how seriously the NOAA was taking these problems.

KUMBAYA?

Stunningly, the IRT noted the NOAA had resolved most of the problem areas.  As far as the IRT was concerned, the NOAA was well on its way to becoming one happy family and making its satellite programs healthy.  But then a look at the color charts on pages 9 and 10 (shown below) of the IRT’s 2013 assessment tells a slightly different story.  And somehow, some different issues, related to the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) come to the fore:  (JPSS) gap policy and implications, gap mitigation, and program robustness.

From 2013 assessment report--click to go there.

Page 9 from 2013 assessment report–click to go there.

Page 10 from 2013 assessment report--click to go there.

Page 10 from 2013 assessment report–click to go there.

 

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

It’s not clear how the NOAA fixed the oversight and decision process.  As explained in part 5 of this post series, the work environment sounded really hostile.  One key question prompted by such incivility is:  what drove the upper management in these programs to manage minutely, untrustingly, and hostilely?  Those upper program managers are influenced and rewarded by higher ups in the NOAA.  Someone above (the boss’ bosses?) them was at the very least aware of the dysfunction going on in these programs.  At the very worst, they not only tolerated such a situation, but encouraged it.  The boss’ bosses may have wanted someone thought to, ironically, “get it done,” no matter what or who got broken.  And according to the IRT’s report on page 4, those boss’ bosses were not reviewed.

There’s a very strong possibility then, the oversight and decision problem didn’t exist just within the programs the IRT was evaluating, but externally—integrated throughout the NOAA to be dealt with daily.  An educated guess based on the IRT’s assessments would say such management was institutionalized, not just a personality or two.  Was there a full scale change of leadership and personnel within the whole NOAA?  That’s doubtful.  So what changed?  What could’ve made the oversight and decision process better in the IRT’s eyes?  The IRT really doesn’t say anything about the NOAA’s response to the 2012 assessment, other than the issues seem to be fixed.

LED DOWN THE GARDEN PATH?

The answer may be the IRT was sold a bill of goods.  Looking at the charts on pages 9 and 10 of the 2013 IRT assessment report, it should be noted that functional organizations’ roles, responsibility for timely and responsive communications, and JPSS scope of responsibilities are all yellow.  And these are very important issues for contractors and the lower government echelons for day to day work.  The yellow color of the functional organizations’ roles, for example, means there’s still confusion about who is responsible for what and who owns different people to do different functions, like policy, budget, operations, etc.

It means workers are still being yanked around by different managers for different things.  Communications aren’t working?  Hardly a surprise since even healthy organizations are constantly dealing with communications issues.  But this likely means upper management isn’t telling their lower echelons what’s going on, and perhaps, vice versa.  And of course JPSS scope of responsibilities aren’t quite clarified.  This is a program that was created from an existing program in early 2010.  Four years have elapsed since the JPSS’ program inception and people still don’t know the scope of responsibilities?  Interesting.

More on Monday (I think we’ll finally be able to tie this one up)—Happy Thanksgiving!