According to a recent audit by the Department of Commerce Inspector General (IG), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) current program launch plans may be increasing risk in the development of its environmental satellites.
The latest satellite in NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite program (GOES-R), GOES-T, is scheduled to launch on Feb. 16. The $10 billion GOES program operates a fleet of satellites that orbit 22,300 miles above the western U.S. and Pacific Ocean. It provides scientists and forecasters with an abundance of data regarding hurricanes, storm systems, wildfires, and cloud and moisture imagery.
However, the satellite program has come under scrutiny. In 2017, the IG discussed a more than $1 million test mishap that could have catastrophically impacted the GOES-16 satellite, partially due to inadequate task planning and an aggressive, compressed schedule. And later, in 2019, the IG found test anomalies and anomalies in integrating an advanced baseline imager instrument because the program chose not to adhere to the “test as you fly—fly as you test” rule.
In this audit, the IG does not outright recommend that NOAA delay the launch but asks that it analyze “alternatives or similar assessments to determine whether to continue the program’s approach of managing schedules toward the earliest possible launch dates.”
GOES-R commitment agreement with NOAA requires it to work towards the earliest achievable launch dates for its satellite missions. The intent behind this is to minimize the risk of a satellite coverage gap.
However, “working toward aggressive planning dates can also increase pressure on schedules within the Program and potentially cause decisions to be predominantly schedule-driven, which can impact technical or cost performance,” the audit noted.
Additionally, the audit found that the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) is planning GOES launches sooner than its policy requires without analyzing the costs and assumes ground storage of satellites is not viable but has not formally studied tradeoffs. The IG recommended that NOAA does the following to respond to those issues:
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis of selected geostationary coverage availability thresholds and update its geostationary launch policy as appropriate.
- Determine the cost of operating spare satellites on-orbit versus alternative options, including considering constellation longevity and satellite development risks, to help inform optimal acquisition and launch strategies.
- Assess the cost-effectiveness of satellite ground and on-orbit storage options using current cost, schedule, and technical performance data to inform NESDIS satellite storage decisions.
- For future satellite series, document storage option considerations early in the acquisition process to optimize satellite storage alternatives.
In its response to the audit, NOAA agreed with all five recommendations made by the IG.