NOAA's Commercial Weather Data Pilot Gets Boost from House Appropriators – UPDATE

NOAA's Commercial Weather Data Pilot Gets Boost from House Appropriators – UPDATE

The House Appropriations Committee wants to increase the amount of FY2017 funding for NOAA’s commercial weather data pilot program both in comparison to the President’s request and to what its Senate counterpart approved.  The committee supports the full request for NOAA’s two major weather satellite programs — JPSS and GOES-R — but holds the subsequent program, Polar Follow On (PFO), to its FY2016 funding level.  The committee expresses concern in a number of areas and support for NOAA’s decision to create another Independent Review Team (IRT) to assess its programs.

The commercial weather data pilot was created by Congress in last year’s appropriation bill.  The intent is for NOAA to purchase commercially available data and “evaluate and calibrate” the data to determine whether it can be integrated into NOAA’s weather models.  Congress appropriated $3 million for FY2016 and required an implementation plan, which NOAA submitted in March (and made publicly available in April). 

For FY2017, the President requested $5 million.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved only $3 million, the same as FY2016.  The House committee, however, is recommending $6 million, $1 million more than the request and twice the Senate committee’s figure.  The House committee said the $6 million would “ensure NOAA has the resources necessary to thoroughly assess commercial data opportunities.”

The House committee revealed its decision in its draft report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce.  The committee will mark up the bill tomorrow morning.

NOAA chose radio occultation (RO) data as the test project for the pilot program.  NOAA has a cooperative program with Taiwan and the U.S. Air Force called COSMIC to provide such data now.  COSMIC satellites use signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) or similar Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) for radio occultation 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.  The technique is referred to as GPS-RO or GNSS-RO.  Thousands of measurements — 50,000-100,000 — per day are useful and COSMIC provides only 2,000-3,000.  NOAA and Taiwan are planning a follow-on system, COSMIC-2, that would provide 10,000.  The rest could come from commercial vendors.  Several companies have or are planning such systems. 

First NOAA must determine if the commercial data are accurate, reliable, and verifiable.  That is the point of the pilot project, which NOAA expects to last through FY2017.  In the meantime, it is requesting $16.2 million for COSMIC-2 in FY2017.  The money is equally divided between new satellites and ground systems to process the data.

The Senate committee denied the $8.1 million for new satellites, encouraging NOAA to get the data from commercial sources.  The House committee recommends the entire $16.2 million, but restricts NOAA from obligating any of the money until NOAA submits a plan that demonstrates NOAA has “thoroughly reviewed potential commercial” data sources.  Both committees are concerned about the costs, especially launch costs, and what agency will pay. The Air Force launched the COSMIC satellites, but has not committed to launching the COSMIC-2 constellation.

The House committee provided the requested funding for JPSS and GOES-R, but remains concerned about delays in the JPSS ground system and about a potential polar satellite data gap.  The $11.3 billion JPSS program pays only for the first two JPSS satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2.  (The total includes $4 billion in sunk costs in the cancelled NPOESS program.)  The next two satellites, JPSS-3 and -4, are called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program. 

NOAA requested $393 million for PFO, including $10 million for an “Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave” (EON-MW) that would house a critical microwave sensor as insurance in case of a JPSS launch or on-orbit failure.

The House committee held the PFO program to its FY2016 funding level of $370 million, which does not include funding for EON-MW.  The committee explained that it was not approving the increase because NOAA has not provided a life cycle cost or an Independent Cost Estimate (ICE) for PFO and schedules remain uncertain.  The Senate committee similarly expressed concern about the lack of the ICE.  It approved the $383 million for PFO, but not the $10 million for EON-MW.

The House Appropriations Committee will mark up the bill tomorrow (May 24) at 10:30 am ET. [UPDATE:  The committee approved the bill on May 24.]

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