NOAA Moves Forward on Commercial Weather Data Pilot – UPDATE

NOAA Moves Forward on Commercial Weather Data Pilot – UPDATE

NOAA is moving forward in implementing a congressional directive to conduct a pilot project to purchase commercial weather data and assess the viability of incorporating it into NOAA’s numerical weather models.  NOAA has concerns about the accuracy, verifiability and reliability of commercial data.  The pilot project is intended to answer some of those questions.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) led the effort to include the provision in the FY2016 appropriations act.  Congress allocated $3 million for the pilot project in FY2016 and NOAA is requesting $5 million in FY2017.  In a report submitted to Congress in March, but made public only this week, NOAA says it is still working through the details of how to spend that money, but estimates one-third will be spent on purchasing data and two-thirds on NOAA’s evaluation of the data’s utility.

“Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program: Report to Congress” is posted on the website of NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce along with the agency’s January 2016 Commercial Space Policy.

A spokesperson for Bridenstine’s office told that the Congressman is glad to see the report has been released and that NOAA continues to take steps to begin incorporating innovative commercial data sources into its weather forecasts.  He will continue to track NOAA’s progress and, as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee’s Environment Subcommittee, carry out oversight to ensure the timelines laid out in the report are met.

In an interview on April 14, Steve Volz, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services (NESDIS), told that he hopes several vendors, perhaps two to four, will respond to a Request for Proposals (RFPs) to be issued in the next quarter.   He prefers to use the money to obtain data from more vendors than to get more data from one vendor.  He thinks it will take through the end of FY2017 to complete the pilot project.

NOAA has chosen radio occultation (RO) data as the focus of the pilot project.  Such data are currently obtained by a constellation of COSMIC satellites built by NOAA in cooperation with the Air Force and Taiwan.  Sensors on the satellites use Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere.  When combined with measurements from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.

Thousands of measurements per day are useful and COSMIC currently provides about 2,000-3,000.   NOAA and Taiwan are building a follow-on system, COSMIC-2, that will increase that number to about 10,000.  Commercial sources could increase that to 50,000-100,000, which Volz says is an upper limit in terms of when costs would outweigh benefits.  From an operational standpoint, such data have a useful lifetime of only about a day, Volz added, although they can be useful for research

The goal of using commercial sources is not just to reduce costs to the government, but to increase the resiliency of weather satellite systems.   Bridenstine frequently expresses concerns about the vulnerability of the “Battlestar Gallactica” spacecraft in service today, arguing in favor of a disaggregated approach of  using many smaller satellites, which reduces the risk of a single launch or satellite failure and complicates potential enemy targeting.

One NOAA concern about using commercial data is that companies typically restrict a customer’s use of data so they can sell it to multiple clients.  The United States, however, makes weather satellite data available globally on a free and open basis in compliance with World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 (WMO 40).  Volz calls it an “underlying tenet of how we do business.”  Many other countries also do so and “we use more than we give,” he asserted and pointed to Europe’s recent agreement to make all data from its Copernicus system available.

At a March 16 hearing before his House SS&T Environment Subcommittee, Bridenstine questioned whether WMO 40 really requires that all data be provided on that basis, however.  He asked NOAA to determine precisely what commercial data could remain proprietary while stressing that he supports U.S. compliance with WMO 40.  His goal is to ensure “we’re not destroying a market that would not otherwise exist” by providing more data for free than necessary.

The witness at the hearing was NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan.  She said she had just returned from meeting with the WMO Secretary General in Geneva, Switzerland, but had not engaged in detailed discussions with him on this topic.  Overall, Sullivan is “intrigued” watching the space sector evolve and finds the prospect of commercial weather data “promising, but still quite nascent.”

In addition to releasing the report to Congress this week, NOAA published a draft Commercial Space Activities Assessment Process last week.  It is open for comment until May 9.  Links to the draft and instructions on how to comment are on the Office of Space Commerce website.

Bridenstine is proposing a parallel commercial weather data pilot for the Department of Defense.  The provision is in his just-introduced American Space Renaissance Act, but he has indicated that he will attempt to also include it in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will markup that bill at the end of this month.  Bridenstine serves on both the House SS&T Committee, which oversees NOAA, and HASC.

Update:  This article was updated on April 15, 2016 to incorporate Congressman Bridenstine’s reaction to NOAA’s report.

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