NOAA's Polar Follow On Bears Brunt of Weather Satellite Cutbacks

NOAA's Polar Follow On Bears Brunt of Weather Satellite Cutbacks

NOAA’s FY2018 budget request shows a sharp decline in spending for its satellite programs.  Some of that is due to planned reductions as development programs ramp down, but the Polar Follow On program would suffer a significant cut and plans for new space weather satellites would not materialize. 

NOAA operates the nation’s civil geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites.  For years, it has been developing a new generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) through the GOES-R program, a set of four satellites (GOES-R, -S, -T and -U).   GOES-R itself was launched last year and redesignated GOES-16, but the series is still referred to as GOES-R.  The budget for that program declines steeply from $753 million appropriated in FY2017 to $519 million requested for FY2018, but it is a planned reduction that was projected in last year’s budget.

NOAA is also building a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites – the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  That program is also ramping down as launch of JPSS-1 nears.  It is scheduled for September 2017.  The FY2018 request for JPSS is $776 million, compared to $787 million appropriated for FY2017. 

The JPSS program funds only the first two satellites in the series, however.  The next two spacecraft, JPSS-3 and -4, are called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program. The FY2018 request is for only $180 million, a sharp drop from the $329 million it received for FY2017 and the $586 million that was projected for this program last year.  Projections for the next four years now are shown only as “TBD.”

NOAA’s budget documentation says the agency will “initiate a re-plan” for PFO and “work to improve its constellation strategy considering all the polar satellite assets to ensure polar weather satellite continuity while seeking cost efficiencies, managing and balancing systems technical risks and leveraging partnerships.”

NOAA also is responsible for providing operational space weather data on solar activity that can affect space and ground systems.  It operates the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and began planning for new satellites to replace it.  The FY2017 budget request called for initiating a new Space Weather Follow-on program of two satellites, the first of which would be launched before DSCOVR exceeds its design lifetime.  The budget request was $2.5 million and Congress doubled that to $5 million.  The projection was for the Space Weather Follow-on to get $53.7 million in FY2018 and ramp up thereafter.  Instead, the FY2018 request is only $500,000.  The Senate just passed the bipartisan Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) to improve space weather forecasting, although it focuses on agency roles and responsibilities, not funding.

The budget request supports NOAA’s commercial weather data pilot program, though only at $3 million compared to the $5 million appropriated for FY2017.  It also supports ground systems for radio occultation data (COSMIC-2), but not new satellites.

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