NOAA Downplays Weather Satellite Gap, House Committee Wants Commercial Data Buys

NOAA Downplays Weather Satellite Gap, House Committee Wants Commercial Data Buys

The head of NOAA’s satellite division downplayed the chances of a gap in coverage by polar orbiting weather satellites at a House committee hearing on Thursday.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has been warning of potential gaps, asked that they put it in writing.  Meanwhile, committee members made clear they want a different paradigm for the future with a greater focus on buying commercial weather data.

Potential Weather Satellite Coverage Gaps

For the past several years of hard fought budget battles, NOAA itself was the one raising red flags about the possibility that older weather satellites would wear out before new ones are launched, routinely issuing dire warnings to Congress about what would happen if there was a gap in coverage.  The strategy worked and Congress began providing all the funding NOAA requested.  Now the crisis seems to have passed from NOAA’s perspective, but GAO remains skeptical based on the information NOAA has made public to date.

At Thursday’s hearing before two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on mitigating potential gaps in weather satellite coverage, the new head of NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), Steve Volz, had quite a different message.   Volz recently succeeded Mary Kicza as head of NESDIS after a long career primarily at NASA.

NOAA operates two weather satellite systems:  one in polar orbit and the other in geostationary orbit.   Concerns about gaps in coverage currently center on the polar orbiting system although NOAA’s management of both systems has been the subject of intense scrutiny in recent years.

The overall concern is that the Suomi-NPP satellite launched in 2011 will cease functioning before the first of the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites is launched and operational (which requires a multi-month checkout period).  The issue is two-fold:  how long S-NPP will last and when JPSS-1 will launch.

S-NPP was designed and developed by NASA as a test satellite (part of the since-cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System – NPOESS), not an operational satellite.  Although public sources cite a 5-year design lifetime, NASA initially forecast a 3-5 year lifetime, as GAO’s David Powner reminded the subcommittees at the hearing.  In addition there are concerns that shortcuts were taken with some of the instruments (notably VIIRS) and that the spacecraft was not designed with the same resiliency against space debris as the JPSS satellites.

S-NPP will reach its 5-year design lifetime in October 2016, but Volz expressed confidence that it will continue functioning “past 2020.”  He also is optimistic that JPSS-1 will stick to its current schedule for launch in March 2017.  GAO’s Powner, who has tracked NOAA’s weather satellite programs for many years, was not convinced.  Regarding S-NPP, Powner said “there was a NASA assessment that it would last 3-5 years, there is supposed to be a gap assessment from 2014 that hasn’t been released yet, the budget still says one year, so if it’s 2020 let’s put it in writing.”   Volz indicated later in the hearing that he would do so.  As for JPSS-1, Powner pointed to recent delays in several of the JPSS-1 instruments, especially the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) “which keeps slipping,” as a threat against the March 2017 launch schedule.

The topic of the hearing was how to mitigate against potential gaps whatever their cause, and while Volz was optimistic about S-NPP’s lifetime and JPSS-1’s schedule, he pointed out there are many failure scenarios and the key is to be ready for any of them.  “It’s not that we’re trying to project the failure of any individual asset, but if an asset fails at a particular time, what is the impact on the overall constellation. … One thing can take out a satellite, or a … launch failure can take out a satellite, what is our response to that and how do we mitigate the impact…   It doesn’t mean we expect it, but we have to prepare for it.”

As for mitigation strategies, dozens have been identified and GAO wants to see them prioritized: “NOAA officials stated that further prioritization among mitigation activities was not warranted because the activities were fully funded and were not dependent on the completion of other activities.  We disagree.  … [U]nless NOAA assesses the activities that have the most promise and accelerates those activities, it may not be sufficiently prepared to mitigate near-term data gaps.”

The JPSS program experienced cost growth in the 2011-2013 time frame causing congressional consternation.   NOAA reduced the cost by removing some program elements and modifying the operational time frame, reducing the program cost from $12.9 billion to $11.3 billion.  That estimate covers how much NOAA spent on the NPOESS program before it was cancelled and the cost of building and operating the first two JPSS satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2. (NOAA plans to build at least two more JPSS satellites, but they have a separate program name – Polar Follow On – and budget line.)   JPSS-2 is scheduled for launch in 2021 with an operational lifetime through 2028, but in the $11.3 billion cost estimate, operations are included only through 2025.  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) asked if that was a “gimmick to hide the true cost of the program.”   Volz, who has been at NOAA for only three months, said he would look into it.

While a potential gap in polar orbit weather data was the main focus of the hearing, concerns about the GOES geostationary system also were noted by Powner and Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee.   The first of NOAA’s new GOES-R satellite series is scheduled for launch in March 2016, followed by a six-month checkout period that will make it operational around September 2016.  NOAA’s policy is to have two operational and one backup GOES satellite in orbit at any given time, but it plans to retire one of its older operational satellites (GOES-13) in April and use the backup satellite (GOES-14) instead.   Those will be the only two GOES satellites operational until GOES-R is launched and checked out “which means 17 months without a spare,” Loudermilk said.  GAO’s Powner stressed the importance of maintaining the March 2016 launch date for GOES-R and of NOAA having a mitigation plan at hand.

A New Paradigm for the Future: Commercial Data Buys

Several members advocated incorporating purchases of commercial weather data into the next generation weather satellite architecture.  Rep.  Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), chairman of the Environment Subcommittee, said the government must “look outside the box” and cited several companies – PlanetIQ, Spire,  GeoOptics, Tempus Global Data and HySpecIQ – planning to deliver GPS radio occultation or hyperspectral atmospheric data that could augment weather forecasts.

Volz spoke positively about using commercial data as long as NOAA is confident it is accurate, reliable, and can be validated.  It already purchases some commercial data, including lightning data and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite data.   He noted that NASA works in concert with other countries in developing global numerical weather prediction models and the data must be readily transferable to and usable by all those countries.   He said NOAA plans a workshop at the end of April with interested companies to discuss steps toward creating an effective working relationship.

Bridenstine asked if any of the $380 million requested in NOAA’s FY2016 budget for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 (the Polar Follow On program) could go to a pilot program for buying commercial data instead of buying a new satellite.  (NOAA is requesting $370 million for the Polar Follow On – PFO.  It also is requesting $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave miniature microwave sounder that is sometimes added to the PFO request, yielding $380 million.)  He supports JPSS and GOES, but wants to “move to a day where we have a different kind of space-based architecture that is resilient, that is disaggregated….where we [take] advantage of commercial technologies” and get NOAA focused on doing “what the private sector cannot do.”

Volz said that what is needed is “backbone government supplied solutions complemented by other alternative approaches” and as those capabilities get stronger, they are “likely to become more prevalent.”   However, he added, thought must be given to the risks if the commercial approach does not succeed.  He also noted that “80 plus percent” of the $380 million is going directly to the private sector companies building the spacecraft and instruments.

The hearing was held before the Subcommittee on Environment and Subcommittee on Oversight of the House SS&T committee.  A webcast of the hearing and written statements by the witnesses and chairs and ranking members of the subcommittees are available on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.


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