Crisis at NOAA



Ball Aerospace says their CloudSat and CALIPSO satellites, launched on April 28 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, have now been commissioned.

The two satellites are designed to improve our understanding of Earth’s weather, climate, and air quality by revealing 3-D details of clouds and the hidden characteristics of aerosols.

Ball Aerospace built the spacecraft bus for CloudSat, and the payload of scientific instruments that includes the CALIOP LIDAR and Wide-Field Camera (WFC) for CALIPSO.

CloudSat transitioned to its operational mode on June 2, when the Cloud Profiling Radar was activated. The millimeter wavelength Cloud-Profiling Radar is more than 1,000 times more sensitive than typical weather radar.

On June 6, NASA released the first pictures, showing a storm over the North Sea in the North Atlantic approaching Greenland.

CALIPSO’s instruments returned the first infrared images from its Infrared Imaging Radiometer followed by visible images from the Wide-Field Camera.

NASA’s Langley Research Center released the first LIDAR science images, which illustrate the layering of the atmosphere. Highlights of the image include a volcanic plume over the equator near the Philippines and a large polar stratospheric cloud above Antarctica.

Scientists hope to use data from CALIPSO to construct three-dimensional models of the atmosphere that will improve our ability to predict future climate change, understand the role of clouds and aerosols in weather, and study how long-range transport of pollutants affects air quality.

CloudSat and CALIPSO joined an orbital formation known as the “A-Train” (current location). The constellation currently includes Aqua (collecting data on the Earth’s water cycle), CloudSat (cloud characteristics) CALIPSO (Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation), PARASOL (Polarization and Directionality of the Earth’s Reflectances) and Aura (daily global observations of Earth’s atmospheric ozone layer), with OCO still to follow.

The “A Train” (above) is part of NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program, which fosters innovative, low-cost Earth-observation missions designed to study the Earth as a global environmental system.

But all is not well at NOAA.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), also manages the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) system, and the lower, Polar Orbit satellites. Their images are seen nightly on virtually every television forecast in the United States. Raytheon will work on GOES-R, the latest.

NOAA’s polar orbiting meteorological satellites (POES), circle the Earth at a typical altitude of 850 km (530 miles, passing over the poles in sun synchronous orbits, which means they are able to observe any place on Earth and view every location twice each day. NOAA 12, NOAA 14 are in standby, NOAA 15 and NOAA 16 are used as secondary spacecraft, and NOAA 17 and NOAA 18 are the primary spacecraft.

Other polar orbiting weather satellites include the DOD’s Meteorological Satellite (DMSP) which can detect objects almost as small as an oil tanker. Russia has the Meteor and RESURS series of satellites. China and India have polar orbiting satellites as well.

The next generation of polar orbiting weather satellites is planned to be the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). Designed to avoid duplication by the military (DMSP) and civilian (POES) low orbit weather satellites, it will pack a ton of exotic instrumentation.

NPOESS is supposed to be the key satellite for developing three- to seven-day weather forecasts for civilian and military purposes. It is designed to replace existing, LEO satellites that are expected to be beyond their useful lives over the next several years. The joint program, run by NASA, NOAA and the Defense Department was scheduled to begin replacing separate military and civilian constellations by 2009.

But something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with NPOESS.

In March 2005, NPOESS was budgeted at $6.8 billion, but current cost estimates have ballooned to $13.8 billion. NOAA’s entire annual budget is $4 billion. NPOESS is at least three years behind its targeted year for becoming operational.

NPOESS is currently not expected to be launched until 2012 – three years late. Gaps in coverage are possible during that time, if enough older satellites fail. Long range weather forecasting could be in jeopardy.

The GAO Director of Information Technology Management Issues, told Congress: “NPOESS is a program in crisis”.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the committee’s ranking minority member, and Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) ranking member on the environment technology and standards subcommittee, said NOAA’s Administrator, and Gen. John J. Kelly Jr., Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, should be fired.

The former NPOESS Integrated Project Office system director has resigned, prime contractor Northrop Grumman has replaced its NPOESS program manager, and Raytheon has brought in a new team to oversee the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS).

Reviewers have decided to certify and continue forward with the NPOESS program with fewer satellites, fewer sensors and more money.

It’s now scheduled for launch in 2013 – potentially leading to a gap in U.S. weather forecasting data.

“Until I am provided sufficient information, I can’t trust that the budget and leadership problems of the past will go away,” said Rep. Wu. “We must find a way forward that maintains the quality and continuity of our weather forecasting system. Billions of taxpayer dollars are tied to those forecasts, and not only quality of life, but actual American lives can hang in the balance. We can’t afford to get this wrong.”

The $7 billion squandered by contractors like Raytheon, Northrop, Lockheed and Boeing could have provided every man, woman and child with two national WiMAX systems for broadband access everywhere.

In other news, Cassini’s RADAR unveiled what appears to be a land of lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan, during a July 22, 2006 flyby.

The Bush Administration’s proposed 5-year budget for NASA is an attack on science,” states the opening line of The Planetary Society’s statement submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science. The Planetary Society says space science in NASA is being gutted. “It could be decades before we see another string of successes like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Exploration Rovers, and Cassini-Huygens”.

It’s a GeoSpatial World. Vexcel’s UltraCam has a base panchromatic resolution of 11,500 x 7,500 pixels in addition to near-infrared. Perhaps it’s time to LiDAR the city and map photos to the 3D model.

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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