NOAA’s Polar Follow On Program Gets Boost In Final FY2018 Appropriations Bill

NOAA’s Polar Follow On Program Gets Boost In Final FY2018 Appropriations Bill

The House Appropriations Committee released its version of the final FY2018 “omnibus” appropriations bill Wednesday evening.  It includes $1.857 billion for procurement, acquisition and construction of NOAA’s satellites.  Included is a substantial increase for the second set of two new polar-orbiting weather satellites called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program compared to the Trump Administration’s request.  A commercial weather data pilot program also would get more money than requested.  NOAA is currently funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires at midnight Friday.  Congressional leaders hope that the omnibus bill will be passed by then.

The omnibus, or consolidated, appropriations bill combines funding for most government agencies.  NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, and is funded in Division B, Commerce-Justice-Science.

NOAA operates the nation’s civilian weather satellites.  In recent years it has funded new generations of both its geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites: the GOES-R series and JPSS respectively.

GOES-R is a set of four next-generation geostationary satellites.  The first two are already in orbit.  Funding in FY2018 is for the next two.  The bill provides the full amount requested, $518.5 million, which is less than earlier years since the program is past its peak funding requirements.

NOAA also needs four new polar-orbiting satellites, but years ago split them into two different budget lines.  The first two (JPSS-1 and JPSS-2) are labeled “JPSS” while the second set (JPSS-3 and JPSS-4) are labeled Polar Follow On (PFO).   JPSS-1 is already in orbit.  The money in FY2018 is for JPSS-2. The bill fully funds it at $776 million, which is slightly less than FY2017 since it also is past its peak funding years.

The PFO account is more controversial.  The question is how quickly those next two satellites are needed.  NOAA received $329 million for PFO in FY2017 and planned to request $586 million in FY2018.  The Trump Administration, however, decided  to request only $180 million and directed NOAA to re-plan the program.  The House Appropriations Committee wanted to cut it even more, recommending just $50 million.  By contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee strongly supported PFO and recommended $419 million.

In the omnibus bill, the Senate position was adopted, funding PFO at $419 million.  This program is likely to continue to be controversial during debate on FY2019. The Trump Administration has proposed merging PFO and JPSS and cutting the amount for the combined program, although it promises to preserve the launch readiness dates for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4.

NOAA also is responsible for operational space weather satellites and needs to build replacements for the aging spacecraft it uses now.   It had a plan during the last year of the Obama Administration, but the Trump Administration rejected it and requested only $500,000 in FY2018 for studies of alternatives.  Congress instead is providing $8.5 million.  Two types of sensors are needed. One measures solar wind (the flow of particles from the Sun) and the other uses a coronagraph to block out the light from the Sun so it can view the corona and detect coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

Language in the report accompanying the bill directs NOAA to provide a “full assessment of launch options for a coronagraph, and a plan to address non-coronagraph space weather requirements” within 180 days of the bill’s enactment.  The FY2019 budget request already proposes a modest space weather program funded at $10 million a year to build a coronagraph that would be placed on one of NOAA’s geostationary weather satellites instead of launched on its own spacecraft into the orbit where the space weather satellites are now (the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point 1 million miles from Earth).  The FY2019 budget request does not address solar wind requirements.

One other program of special interest is NOAA’s commercial weather data pilot program, which Congress created in the FY2016 appropriations bill.  Through this program, NOAA is procuring weather data from commercial companies to determine if it is sufficiently reliable, accurate, timely and verfiable to be incorporated into NOAA’s weather models.  The Trump Administration requested $3 million for the program in FY2018.  Congress doubled that to $6 million.

One curious aspect of congressional action on the budget is a substantial increase in the Cooperative Data and Rescue Services (CDARS) program.  The request was $500,000.  The House Appropriations Committee recommended that amount, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $5 million, and the final amount is $21.65 million. No explanation is provided.  CDARS funds NOAA’s Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) and Advanced Data Collection Service (A-DCS) activities.  The SARSAT system relays emergency locator signals from people, aircraft, and marine vessels in distress to a mission control center that notifies appropriate authorities and provides their exact location.  NOAA used to put the devices on its polar-orbiting weather satellites, but is migrating them to GOES and to DOD’s Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system.  A-DCS collects data from buoys in the ocean.  Both are international programs.

The following excerpt from a table in the report accompanying the omnibus appropriations bill shows how the NOAA satellite funding in the PAC account would be allocated.  NOAA funding for satellite operations in its Operations, Research and Facilities (ORF) account is not reflected here.





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