A House-Senate deal to fund the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration includes enough cash to stabilize the nation's struggling environmental satellite program, a top agency official said yesterday.

A conference agreement released Monday night includes $924 million for NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), just shy of the Obama administration's fiscal 2012 request, $1.07 billion.

NOAA's deputy undersecretary for operations, Mary Glackin, told a Senate committee yesterday that the funds would help firm up the launch schedule for the program's first satellite and limit a projected gap in weather and climate data.

"We are extremely pleased at the conference report that came out and look forward to that being signed into law," Glackin told the Senate Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee.

"Given what looks like some certainty in the funding for 2012, at a level that's not perfect but certainly very good, we'll be in a much better position."

NOAA received just $382 million for JPSS in fiscal 2011, well below the $910 million it sought. That forced the agency to pare down its workload to preparing one satellite for launch in October and continuing to prepare instruments for its next satellite, now set to launch in early 2017.

Playing catch-up without a plan
The White House budget request for 2011 included enough money to support roughly 1,600 JPSS staffers, but the agency could only afford to pay about 800 staffers last year because Congress slashed funding for the program.

The result is "a nearly 100 percent chance" of a gap in weather and climate data used by NOAA and the military, Glackin said, because the JPSS-1 satellite won't be ready to replace its predecessor, the NPP satellite that launched last month, before it stops functioning.

NOAA believes the data gap will begin in late 2016 and last anywhere from 12 to 18 months, depending on how long it takes the agency to complete quality-control checks on the data transmitted from JPSS-1 once the satellite reaches orbit.

Now, with the conference deal expected to be approved, and NOAA set to receive about 90 percent of the money it sought for the current budget cycle, "we will begin to add staff up to the level that's projected," Glackin said. That will allow NOAA to begin work on areas it neglected in 2011, including work on the ground system for the NPP satellite and building the body for the program's next satellite.

Trying to overcome 'years of setbacks'
But the agency is not out of the woods yet, the Commerce Department's inspector general, Todd Zinser, told lawmakers.

Zinser said NOAA does not have a final plan to lessen the impact of any data gap that occurs between the time NPP stops working and when JPSS-1 is fully operational, which he said could be as long as 21 months.

Meanwhile, Zinser said, the agency must work to prevent another potential data gap that could occur if the NPP satellite hasn't finished in-orbit quality control checks before its predecessor, known as NOAA-19, reaches the end of its design life in March 2013.

Zinser and NOAA agree that it could take up to 18 months to finish the checks on NPP, which launched in October, which would mean the satellite wouldn't be fully operational until the very end of NOAA-19's design life.

"JPSS is a critically important program for the nation and its ability to observe weather and provide data for forecasts, watches and warnings, but it is a program that must overcome years of setbacks," Zinser said.

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