"NPP" is the future of forecasting. It's lengthy name, National Polar Orbiting Experimental Satellite System Preparatory Project, has a big price tag ($1.5 billion) but it provides critical weather data. It has been designed and built right here in Colorado by Ball Aerospace.
"Polar orbiting satellites provide about 93 percent of the data that goes into the big, computer weather numerical models," said NOAA Deputy Administrator, Dr. Kathy Sullivan who was touring the Boulder facility this week.
NPP is going through its final phases of development and is scheduled to launch in October. It is an essential bridge to the next generation of weather satellite equipment. Its successor, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) will then replace NPP at the end of its lifespan.
Proposed budget cuts have affected the development of JPSS in the timetable initially planned. Congress has not yet approved funding needed to keep this program moving forward on the schedule that was originally anticipated at the project's inception.
Without the data JPSS will provide, forecast accuracy would degrade considerably. Preliminary tests were done this past winter through simulated forecasts without the satellite provided data. According to Dr. Sullivan, forecast accuracy was lowered by as much as 50%. This would in turn affect public safety, since severe weather forecasting would suffer.
Other consequences without JPSS include an effect on military operations, mission planning, disaster relief, and commercial air travel safety.
NPP is currently housed in a "clean room" on site at Ball Aerospace in Boulder. It will remain there through August before being transported to Vandenburg Air Force Base in California for a scheduled October liftoff.
The satellite equipment itself is so delicate that anyone who comes in contact with it has to put on what's called a "bunny suit." Like a smudge on your eyeglass lens reducing your view, even the smallest contaminant could affect the satellite's precision.
That precision is in fact critical. Numerical weather models that helped forecast some of the recent tornado outbreaks are attributed to satellite provided data. The advanced warning lead time enabled first responders in place for a potential emergency. "The preparedness to respond and move the community toward repair and healing, that is queued by the three, five, and seven day outlooks that the satellites feed," said Dr. Sullivan.
NPP and JPSS provide more than just the day-to-day weather information. According to project chief engineer Rob Baltrum, "ocean temperature sensing, moisture density, cloud density, aerosols through the atmosphere, all of those types of data get used by the meteorological type groups."
Budget cuts have become so deep, that Ball Aerospace intended to have 120 people working on the satellite; that number is now limited to just 12. Work is already underway for JPSS, and they hope that the money to pay for it will eventually be approved by Congress.
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