Weather Satellites: Planning for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Program Needs More Attention (Chapter Report, 03/13/97, GAO/AIMD-97-37) (PDF file)


The National Geographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is in the process of procuring new geostationary operational satellites to replace the current series of satellites, which will reach the end of their useful lives around 2002. NOAA plans to buy a continuation series of two to four satellites that will be very similar to the current series in their capabilities to fill the potential gap in satellite coverage that could occur after the turn of the century. Beyond the potential gap in coverage, NOAA has not yet decided whether to continue procuring the same type of satellites or consider new designs for a next generation system. In fiscal year 1998, NOAA plans to spend more than $240 million to develop and operate the geostationary operational environmental satellites system. Because the NOAA budget is expected to be tight in the coming years, this report assesses (1) the agency's strategy for procuring continuation series satellites, (2) what steps the agency should be taking now to prepare for the next generation series of satellites, and (3) whether the potential exists for improving the system and reducing costs in the long term.


GAO noted that:
  1. based on the best available analysis, the potential for a gap in geostationary satellite coverage will be significant in the early years of the next century if procurement of new satellites does not begin soon;
  2. to prevent this problem, NOAA plans to competitively procure two to four continuation series spacecraft that will carry the same meteorological instruments as the current spacecraft and incorporate modest technical improvements;
  3. the satellites are planned for launch beginning in 2002;
  4. given the importance of maintaining continuous geostationary weather coverage, NOAA's plans are reasonable;
  5. however, there are inherent difficulties in determining exactly when and how many of the continuation series spacecraft will be needed;
  6. despite these difficulties, GAO identified several specific shortcomings in NOAA's spacecraft planning process that, if remedied, could improve planning in the future;
  7. based on the President's fiscal year (FY) 1998 budget, NOAA does not plan to begin a follow-on GOES program until FY 2003 at the earliest;
  8. given that the opportunity now exists to consider alternatives for a follow-on system, current usage of GOES data by weather forecasters suggests that a reexamination of the GOES satellite architecture is warranted;
  9. before a decision can be made about what kind of follow-on satellite system to build, an updated analysis of user needs must be completed;
  10. several new approaches and technologies for geostationary satellite meteorology have been suggested in recent years by government, academic, and industry experts, however, identifying and evaluating the full range of options will require thorough engineering analysis;
  11. in addition, past NOAA experience shows that developing new technologies is done most efficiently as a separate line of effort, outside of the operational satellite program;
  12. such an effort would benefit from greater collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whose expertise and support have, in the past, significantly contributed to the development of NOAA's weather satellite systems;
  13. the longer that NOAA continues without actively considering other options for a future system, the more it risks having to procure additional continuation series satellites, because the availability date for a fully developed new satellite system will slip farther into the future.

Full report available from GAO web site,