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Earth Space Science

Our Weather Satellites Are Dying 193

Hugh Pickens writes "The NY Times reports that some experts say it is almost certain that the U.S. will soon face a year or more without crucial weather satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks. This is because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launching of the next replacement, known as JPSS-1, has slipped until early 2017. Polar satellites provide 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking the course of Hurricane Sandy, which at first was expected to amble away harmlessly, but now appears poised to strike the mid-Atlantic states. The mismanagement of the $13 billion program to build the next generation weather satellites was recently described as a 'national embarrassment' by a top official of the Commerce Department. A launch mishap or early on-orbit failure of JPSS 1 could lead to a data gap of more than 5 years. The second JPSS satellite — JPSS 2 — is not scheduled for launch until 2022. 'There is no more critical strategic issue for our weather satellite programs than the risk of gaps in satellite coverage,' writes Jane Lubchenco, the under-secretary responsible for the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. 'This dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.' As a aside, I know from personal experience that this isn't the first time NOAA has been in this situation. 'In 1992 NOAA's GOES weather satellites were at the end of their useful lives and could have failed at any time,' I wrote as a project manager for AlliedSignal at that time. 'So NOAA made an agreement with the government of Germany to borrow a Meteosat Weather Satellite as a backup and drift it over from Europe to provide weather coverage for the US's Eastern seaboard in the event of an early GOES failure.'"
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Our Weather Satellites Are Dying

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  • by ColaMan ( 37550 ) on Saturday October 27, 2012 @08:30PM (#41793173) Journal

    The polar orbiting satellites are the quiet achievers of weather forecasting. Everyone sees the geostationary sat images on TV and think that's it, but there's a lot more going on with the polar sats.

    They orbit north/south over the poles at about 800km. They are sun-synchronous (so the sun is always behind them illuminating the earth on their daylight run) and they do an orbit about every 90 minutes or so. The earth turns underneath them as they orbit, so they cover the entire globe. The current POES status is here [noaa.gov]

    They transmit a heap of data - the data I receive here in Australia is the APT transmissions, which is 4 x 4 km per pixel resolution images in the visible and IR wavelength, which run constantly. As the satellite clears the horizon, you pick up the signal at two lines per second and about 15 minutes later on a directly overhead pass it sets again and you've got a nice, 2000km x 4000km image of your immediate area, just like if it came off a fax machine. The two wavelengths offered in the analog mode give you a visible image and allow you to read temperatures, so you can find thunderheads and cold fronts, for example. The APT transmissions just require a 137Mhz FM receiver and a simple antenna to pick up, so it's easy to get images.

    They also have a digital mode - HRPT - with the entire range of 6 imaging sensors onboard and 1x1km per pixel resolution and you can do a lot with that - highlight vegetation, measure and and sea surface temps, locate and track fires and such.

    Onboard there are also charge sensors for measuring auroral densities, and you can visit a webpage [noaa.gov] that shows the current auroral activity. The satellites can also receive, process and retransmit data from Search and Rescue beacon transmitters, and automatic data collection platforms on land, ocean buoys, or aboard free-floating balloons, as well as detect and map the ozone holes that appear yearly over the poles.

    Their capabilities completely outclass the geosynchronous satellites and I hope that NOAA gets their act together and back on track with the launches.

  • by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Saturday October 27, 2012 @11:21PM (#41794091)

    I agree... we should let corporations tell us when weather is bad.
    Because paying for information to be told a tornado is coming is a good idea.
    Paying to be told a hurricane is coming is a good idea.
    Preventing loss of life should be secondary to profits.
    Also, none of that is bribing to save lives, its just good business.

    If only we were less short sighted than profits and more caring about people. But fuck it, PROFITS!

    Not that I want to get in the way of a rant with momentum (+5? Really?), but you do realize that at present the vast majority of people in the United States get their warnings about bad weather, approaching tornados, and hurricanes heading towards shore, from their local television and radio stations? You do realize that the vast majority of them are commercial enterprises? You know: ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, the Weather Channel, etc.? You do realize what those organizations are, don't you? They are called "corporations," and I haven't noticed any mass slaughter going on due to lack of warning - quite the opposite. But it gets worse - the satellites that provide the weather information - built by corporations under contract. There is a growing chance that the next weather satellites will be carried into orbit by commercial space lift - rockets owned and operated by corporations. Still worse, the warnings about bad weather are transmitted on commercial equipment, in some cases on commercial communications satellites. The horror! How is it that we manage to avoid daily disaster, given your thinking? Is it possible there is a piece of the puzzle you aren't accounting for? (One piece? More than that I think.)

    "Government" is just a word for things we do together. "Corporation" is just a word for things we do together voluntarily. -- David Burgeâ@iowahawkblog [twitter.com]

  • by amck ( 34780 ) on Sunday October 28, 2012 @09:06AM (#41795799) Homepage

    Estimates are it takes 1-5 M/ mile of coastline to evacuate before a hurricane.

    Improved observations from the 1970s cut the estimates for where a hurricane will make landfall from ~300miles to ~50 miles radius,
    (24 hours out, I think; I'm not an American, but remembering numbers quoted from a US colleague in the business).

    So, better forecasts cut the cost of evacuating from a hurricane by ~100 Million a time, easy to save 12 gigabucks a decade.

    Yes, we do measure this. Every met service I know of (e.g. NOAA) has to explain its budget.
    I'm not sure of the US numbers, but in the UK the return on investment in meteorology is ~x11 fold, according to external auditors.

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -- James Bryant Conant