Polar Weather Satellites:

NOAA Identified Ways to Mitigate Data Gaps, but Contingency Plans and Schedules Require Further Attention

GAO-13-676: Published: Sep 11, 2013. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made noteworthy progress on the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program by delivering data from its first satellite--the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (S-NPP)--to weather forecasters, completing significant instrument development for the next satellite (called JPSS-1), and reducing the program's life cycle cost estimate from $12.9 billion to $11.3 billion by refocusing on weather products. However, key challenges remain. Specifically, S-NPP has not yet achieved full operational capability because the program is behind schedule in validating the readiness of satellite products. Also, the program does not track whether key users are using its products or if the products meet the users' needs. In addition, issues with the JPSS ground system schedules have delayed the delivery of key system capabilities. Until the program addresses these challenges, it may continue to experience delays in delivering actionable S-NPP data to system users and in meeting JPSS-1 development schedules.

A program's success depends in part on having an integrated master schedule that defines when and how long work will occur and how activities are related to each other; however, the JPSS program office does not yet have a complete integrated master schedule and weaknesses exist in component schedules. Specifically, the program established an integrated master schedule in June 2013 and is reporting a 70 percent confidence level in the JPSS-1 launch date. However, about one-third of the program schedule is missing information needed to establish the sequence in which activities occur. In addition, selected component schedules supporting the JPSS-1 satellite have weaknesses including schedule constraints that have not been justified. Until the program completes its integrated schedule and addresses weaknesses in component schedules, it will lack the information needed to effectively monitor development progress and have less assurance of meeting the planned JPSS-1 launch date.

While NOAA developed a mitigation plan to address a potential 14 to 18 month gap in afternoon polar satellite data in October 2012 and subsequently identified additional alternatives for addressing potential gaps, it has not yet established a comprehensive contingency plan. Specifically, NOAA has not yet revised its mitigation plan to include the new alternatives, and the plan lacks several key elements, such as triggers for when to take key actions and detailed procedures for implementing them. Until NOAA establishes a comprehensive plan, it may not be sufficiently prepared to mitigate anticipated gaps in polar satellite coverage.

Why GAO Did This Study

NOAA established the JPSS program in 2010 to replace aging polar satellites and provide critical environmental data used in forecasting weather and measuring variations in climate. However, program officials anticipate a gap in satellite data between the time that the S-NPP satellite reaches the end of its life and the JPSS-1 satellite becomes operational. Given the criticality of satellite data to weather forecasts, the likelihood of a significant satellite data gap, and the potential impact of a gap on the health and safety of the U.S. population and economy, GAO added this issue to its High Risk List in 2013.

GAO was asked to review the JPSS program because of the importance of polar satellite data. GAO's objectives were to (1) evaluate NOAA's progress in sustaining the continuity of NOAA's polar-orbiting satellite system through S-NPP and JPSS satellites; (2) evaluate the quality of NOAA's program schedule; and (3) assess NOAA's plans to address potential gaps in polar satellite data. To do so, GAO analyzed program management status reports, milestone reviews, and schedule data; examined polar gap contingency plans; and interviewed agency and contractor officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending NOAA develop a mechanism to track the usage of its satellite products, establish a complete integrated master schedule, address weaknesses in component schedules, and address shortfalls in polar satellite gap contingency plans. NOAA concurred with GAO's recommendations and identified steps it is taking to implement them.

For more information, contact Dave Powner at (202) 512-9286 or pownerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation, and stated that it would create and maintain a master list of JPSS data products. A master list would contain information on product generation, product maturity, users, user readiness, and planned operational dates. Additionally, NOAA stated that JPSS has developed a tracking spreadsheet that identifies the key users for each product, and that the program is working with users to understand use of JPSS products and users' expected needs. However, NOAA has not yet provided this information. We will continue to monitor the agency's progress on these efforts.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to track the extent to which key groups of satellite data users are using S-NPP and JPSS products, and obtain feedback on these products.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and, by February 2016, the JPSS program created a series of schedules, including an integrated master schedule, which included logic links for all of its detail activities. However, activities on the master schedule require completion of activities on other component schedules, such as the flight schedule, in order to commence. Because the integrated schedule depends on other schedules, it is important that the activities in these schedules also be fully logically linked. The JPSS-1 flight and JPSS ground system schedules are not fully linked. Specifically, the flight schedule is missing both start and finish links for 47% of its remaining activities, and the ground schedule is missing these for 78% of its remaining activities. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to establish a complete JPSS program integrated master schedule that includes a logically linked sequence of activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and took several steps to improve its schedule practices. For example, the JPSS-1 flight schedule greatly reduced the number of high-duration activities, which would allow for better progress measurement, as well as the number of activities with extremely high margin. However, issues remain in both the flight and ground schedules. Specifically, both schedules continue to have a high amount of missing schedule logic; both include a high number of constraints on remaining schedule logic; and neither are fully resource loaded. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to address the shortfalls in the ground system and spacecraft component schedules outlined in this report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation. However, it has not conducted a new joint cost and schedule level (JCL) analysis since the time of the JPSS program's Preliminary Design Review in February 2013. We will continue to monitor progress on conducting this analysis.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to, after completing the integrated master schedule and addressing shortfalls in component schedules, update the joint cost and schedule confidence level for JPSS-1, if warranted and justified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NOAA agreed with this recommendation and it created and provided a new gap mitigation contingency plan in April 2015. Among other things, this version of the plan included specific contingency actions and progress in completing them as well as roles and responsibilities for relevant NOAA offices in implementing defined mitigation strategies. The plan also identified trigger points for adjusting which actions will be performed to fulfill several alternatives, such as in the event of a gap; addressed mitigation of a potential loss of data from the mid-morning polar orbit, and identified opportunities to accelerate the calibration and validation phase of JPSS-1.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of having reliable schedules for managing JPSS satellite launch dates and the significance of polar-orbiting satellite data to weather forecasts, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of NOAA to establish a comprehensive contingency plan for potential satellite data gaps in the polar orbit that is consistent with contingency planning best practices identified in this report. The plan should include, for example, specific contingency actions with defined roles and responsibilities, timelines, and triggers; analysis of the impact of lost data from the morning orbits; and identification of opportunities to accelerate the calibration and validation phase of JPSS-1.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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