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Sat, Jun 16, 2007

Vital Hurricane-Warning Satellite In Danger Of Failing

Replacement Not Expected Until 2016 At Earliest

A weather satellite launched in 1999 that plays a key role in making accurate hurricane predictions is in danger of failing at any moment. A replacement was originally due to be launched in 2009, but has been bumped to 2016.

NASA's Quick Scatterometer (QuickScat) satellite provides essential data on wind speed and direction over an ocean. The SeaWinds microwave radar on the satellite measures near-surface wind speed and direction in all weather and cloud conditions over Earth's oceans.

Should it fail, the accuracy of two-day forecasts could suffer by as much as 10 percent and three-day forecasts by 16 percent, according to the Associated Press. This could mean difficult and expensive choices would have to be made.

"We would go blind. It would be significantly hazardous," said Wayne Sallade, emergency manager in Charlotte County, hard hit by Hurricane Charley in 2004.

A spokesman for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said data from other satellites, though less accurate, would be utilized should QuickScat be lost.

Bill Proenza, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said authorities "may have to err on the side of caution" in forecasting hurricane activity in event of the satellite fails.

"That means more people disrupted, and more impact on the economy," he said. "We have to err on the side of the protection of life. And that's how we would handle it.

Emergency managers have been informed of the issue. Not being able to rely on forecasts will make their decision making process that much more difficult, they said, such as hospital evacuations. Unreliable forecasting would mean a wider area to evacuate. It is estimated the cost of an evacuation is roughly $1 million per mile coastline.

So, why not go ahead and replace it? Why take the chance? NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher blamed technical and budget problems for the setback in a letter to a Florida congressman, according to the AP.

The cost of a replacement satellite is being estimated in the neighborhood of $400 million. Even if someone were to hand NOAA the money, it would take at least four years to build.

QuickScat's major problems began last year when a transmitter used to send information to Earth about every 90 minutes failed. The satellite is now working on a backup transmitter.

Robert Gaston, who works with QuickScat at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said it is not known just how long the backup with last -- maybe years, maybe not. Oh, and there won't be any warning that it's getting ready to fail, either.

Just in time for hurricane season.

FMI: www.noaa.gov

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