NOAA Gets Space Weather Boost from Senate Appropriators

NOAA Gets Space Weather Boost from Senate Appropriators

Two days after three Senators introduced a bill to spur space weather research and forecasting, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a boost for NOAA’s space weather satellite program and endorsed its plans to build two new satellites over the next several years. The action came as part of the committee’s markup of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (S. 2837).

NOAA is responsible for building and operating satellites that monitor Earth’s weather and space weather.  Space weather is caused by particles ejected from the Sun that hit Earth’s atmosphere and can damage satellites and terrestrial infrastructure such as the electric grid.  NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point to give advance warning of solar eruptions, but two of the three are quite old.  NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) was launched in 1997 and ESA’s Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) in 1995.  A newer satellite, the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), was launched last year, but only SOHO has a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that allow NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO to issue forecasts and alerts.

Concern about the potential impacts of space weather has been growing since they were highlighted in a 2008 National Research Council report.  In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.  

Congress seems to be getting the message.  Last year NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for a follow-on to DSCOVR and Congress cut that in half, appropriating just $1.2 million.  By contrast, this year the request is also $2.5 million, but Senate appropriators tripled it to $7.5 million. 

Perhaps more significantly, the committee endorsed NOAA’s plan to increase funding sharply in the coming years to pay for two space weather satellites, two launch vehicles, and two sets of
sensors (solar wind instruments and compact coronagraphs). The goal is to have one
satellite ready to replace DSCOVR at the end of its projected mission life in FY2022.  In its FY2017 budget request, NOAA presented a projected funding profile to accomplish that plan: FY2018, $53.7
million; FY2019, $186.1 million; FY2020, $154.5 million; and FY2021, $81.5 million.  In its report on the CJS bill, the committee directs NOAA “to maintain the multi-year funding profile and schedule” and use the additional money provided for FY2017 “to accelerate the development of advanced technologies and an architecture study for a series of space weather follow-on flight missions” to implement OSTP’s strategy and action plan.

The appropriations action came two days after Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced an authorization bill, S. 2817, to clarify space weather responsibilities and promote research.  That bill, which focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding, is scheduled for mark up by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (April 27).

Overall, NOAA’s satellite programs fared well in the Senate appropriations bill.  See’s NOAA budget fact sheet for more details. NOAA’s major weather satellite programs — JPSS, GOES-R, and Polar Follow On (PFO) — were fully funded.

Not everything was approved, though.  Like last year, the committee rejected NOAA’s $10 million request to build the Earth Observation Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW).  NOAA describes it as a risk reduction mission to ensure that it can obtain critical microwave sounding observations in case of a launch or instrument failure on JPSS-1.

The committee also rejected an $8.1 million request to build a new set of COSMIC radio occultation (RO) satellites, although it approved $8.1 million for the associated ground system.  The committee encouraged NOAA to use its commercial weather data pilot program to obtain the needed RO data, although it cut NOAA’s $5 million request for the pilot program to $3 million (the same as FY2016).  It also denied a $4.4 million request for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite.  The committee said it supports Jason-3, but now that the satellite is in orbit, funding requests for data analysis and processing should be in a different part of NOAA’s budget (the Operations, Research and Facilities account).

The top Democrat on the Senate committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), said last week that she expects the CJS bill to reach the Senate floor in 2-3 weeks.  The Senate has not passed any of the 12 regular appropriations bills in several years, but currently is debating the Energy-Water appropriations bill, so perhaps this year will be different.  The House Appropriations Committee, however, has not yet marked up its CJS bill and CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) indicated last week that he is not optimistic that Congress will complete action on appropriations bills by October 1 when FY2017 begins.  He expects agencies will be funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the first part of FY2017.

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