Last night, Weatherdude published a very good diary, which you can find here. But he just scratched the surface. There is another article here that also illustrates the crisis. But again, that is just the beginning. See the real crisis below the fold.
When weather satellites are in production, they are identified by letters. Once they launch, they are identified by numbers. The satellite that failed, GOES 13 was originally known as GOES-N. The one that was on orbit storage, GOES 14 was known as GOES-O. GOES 15 was GOES-P, and it is currently operating to the west. The GOES N-P information is located here.
When GOES 13 began to have trouble, GOES 15 was put on "full disc mode" to cover the entire continent, but that reduces the clarity of its images. GOES 14 is being moved into action on the east, at which time 15 will return to normal operating mode. There are no spares available. The next scheduled launch is GOES-R, which will have tremendous increases in capability, but it won't launch until September of 2015, if all goes well. All never goes well.
In the meantime, we have to be concerned about the polar orbiting weather satellites. The last POES satellite (TIROS family) launched in 2009. In 1999, the polar satellites for NOAA joined forces with DoD to create the NPOESS program. This was intended to streamline the weather satellite systems and eliminate the redundancies. It was also a huge disaster. NPOESS was dissolved in 2010. Ball Aerospace was given the contract for a new program called JPSS. The first JPSS satellite was not a weather satellite, but an earth environmental observer called NPP. It is a reduced capability satellite that launched in 2011. JPSS-1, the next polar orbiter, is scheduled to launch in 2016, if all goes well. All never goes well. These satellites have a life cycle of 2 years. Although the POES satellites have outlasted their life cycles by quite a bit, they cannot last forever. Since Ball is new in weather satellites, JPSS-1 may or may not be as reliable.
So ... our GEO satellites are without backup, our polar orbiters are at life cycle and our next launches are scheduled to launch in about 2 1/2 years and 3 years. Meanwhile, the infrastructure around these satellites is crumbling. The system that processes and combines the data from these satellites, AWIPS, was bid out in 2005. The reason the entire system went to bid was that until then, NOAA was afraid to change the hardware because the software would fail and afraid to change the software because the hardware would fail. AWIPS was supposed to be delivered in 2011. It is not yet ready to deliver and still has stuff to work out. Right now, our weather data is being processed by a system delivered in the mid 90s. Final installation occurred in 1998.
Are you worried yet? It gets worse. According to the Washington Post article listed above, the day of the big Newcastle tornado a huge communications system failed, shutting down 6 weather forecasting offices. Due to budget costs, one weather service official refused to launch a weather balloon in tornado alley. Many forecasters and analysts are subject to sequester furloughs, and there is a hiring freeze despite a 10% shortage of forecasters. NWS Websites for the entire southern region failed. There are no redundancies.
In spite of all this, NOAA managed to get warnings out in time for residents of Moore and nearby areas to take cover. Despite a EFS 5, only 24 people died. NWS has a goal of a 15 minute warning about the approach of a tornado. The warning of a tornado on the ground was issued 16 minutes before it hit. The warning of a likelihood of a tornado was issued 24 hours in advance. This is an amazing accomplishment. However, with the degrading of our weather capabilities, will they be as successful next time?
We are currently 8 years behind on having full coverage and redundancy, both in weather detection and weather processing. Sequestration and austerity are putting us farther behind. All this is happening in the face of climate change (whether you admit its existence or not). Anyone who thinks Weatherdude was panicking unnecessarily needs to read more about this.
btw ... if anyone is interested in the instruments on the satellites or on other platforms, you can read all about it at the NOAA site.