The fiscal 2011 budget compromise crafted by the White House and congressional leaders would delay a key federal climate and weather satellite program, making a lengthy gap in critical environmental data a near certainty.

Cuts contained in the 2011 budget plan would push back the launch of the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) orbiter by at least 18 months past the current 2016 target, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco said yesterday.

That would halt the flow of crucial weather and climate data -- handicapping environmental forecasts, severe storm warnings and search-and-rescue operations, Lubchenco warned a Senate Commerce subcommittee.

"It's safe to say there will almost certainly be a gap in coverage that, at this point, looks like it may be at least 18 months, based on the fact that the launch date will now slip at least 18 months," she said.

That projected gap has grown by at least four months since early February. NOAA officials said then that they expected a 12- to 14-month delay (ClimateWire, Feb. 15).

The problem stems from the series of stopgap funding measures that have kept the federal government operating since October. That hand-to-mouth existence has taken its toll on JPSS, Lubchenco said, since those temporary spending bills did not include the full $910 million that President Obama sought for the satellite program in 2011.

"There is great uncertainty now with respect to what the fiscal future of this program is," she said. "We're still in the process of doing planning to try to figure out how we can minimize the damage."

Funding 'tight into the future'
The proposed 2011 budget compromise, which would fund the government through the end of September, would worsen that problem. It chops NOAA's budget to $4.6 billion, $140 million below the level enacted in fiscal 2010. The agency had sought $5.5 billion this year.

Although Congress has yet to vote on the new plan, Mark Begich (D-Alaska), chairman of the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, said there was little chance NOAA would receive full funding for the satellite program this year -- or next.

"Funding will remain tight into the future," said Begich, one of a group of Senate Democrats who participated in an unsuccessful last-ditch effort last week to secure a budget boost for JPSS. "You can pretty much assume it's not coming in for 2011. We're moving to the next stage."

Lubchenco said her agency believes it has few options for averting a gap in the climate and weather data that JPSS satellites are designed to gather.

The current polar-orbiting satellite now in space is slated to be replaced in September by a satellite known as the "NPOESS Preparatory Project," or NPP.

Cancel contracts now, pay more later
Because NPP was designed as an experimental satellite, its planned lifetime is short -- just five years. The current budget difficulties mean that NPP's replacement, known as JPSS-1, won't be ready to fly in late 2016.

"There is no other polar-orbiting satellite that will be flying in the orbit that JPSS[-1] was intended to fly in, and so that's why there will be a data gap," Lubchenco told lawmakers yesterday. "There isn't redundancy."

Congress's budget cuts will also have long-term financial consequences for the satellite program.

"For every dollar we didn't spend this year on JPSS, we will need to spend $3 to $5 down the road," Lubchenco said. "We have to cancel the contracts we have, to let people go. These are very skilled workers, and then you'd have to bring them back."

JPSS's current budget woes are the latest in a string of problems that have bedeviled the satellite program and its predecessor, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).

The program was designed in the 1990s by the Defense Department, NOAA and NASA to replace separate military and civilian weather satellite efforts. Its estimated price tag more than doubled -- from $6.5 billion to $13.9 billion -- and its satellites were delayed by years before the Obama administration decided in 2010 to split the effort into separate Air Force and NOAA programs.

"A lot of people see those satellites and think, 'Why is that useful to me? Why do I need weather satellites when I have the Weather Channel?'" Lubchenco said yesterday. "But the reality is, that's where we get 98 percent of the information that goes into weather forecasts and disaster warnings -- plus they give us information that enables maritime commerce to happen and helps with search and rescue."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500