If passed into law, the federal budget for 2011 that lawmakers will vote on this week will harm key efforts in daily weather forecasting, search-and-rescue operations, and long-term weather prediction, says a top U.S. government official. Speaking at a Senate committee hearing this afternoon, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco said that the $4.5 billion level for NOAA's budget this year set by congress would delay the launch of the first satellite in the $12 billion Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) from 2016 to 2018.
Polar satellites are uniquely important for weather prediction. Whereas geostationary crafts orbit over fixed points some 36,000 km above Earth's surface, polar crafts like JPSS-1 will whiz around Earth in a north-south direction at an altitude of 770 km, providing much finer data resolution and scanning every point on Earth as the planet spins. JPSS-1 would acquire a "much better quality" temperature and moisture profile than those of geostationary weather satellites, says JPSS Deputy Director Ajay Mehta. Plus polar crafts fill gaps in coverage, he says: "There's really no imagery for Alaska, for example, if you rely just on geostationary satellites."
For years, concern about NOAA's troubled polar satellite program has focused on climate sensors, six of which were stripped from JPSS's predecessor, NPOESS, in 2006, to preserve weather data. But now weather information itself is in jeopardy. In October, NASA intends to launch a polar satellite, the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), that would gather data similar to that gathered by JPSS-1. But according to its design life, NPP will not function after 2017. That would leave an 18-month data gap between the end of the NPP mission and launch of JPSS-1, Lubchenco says.
JPSS-1's launch will be delayed in part because NOAA's $4.5 billion budget under the 2011 bill is roughly $1 billion lower than what the Obama Administration requested; roughly 80% of the cut comes from the procurement, acquisition, and construction part of the agency's budget. Congressional dithering has also put the JPSS program behind schedule, Mehta says. (NOAA expressed similar concerns last month.) Because of the budget uncertainty, Mehta says, NOAA has done almost no work on JPSS since last October.
A data gap between NPP and JPSS in 2017 could have profound consequences.