Rep. Smith Questions NOAA's Commitment to Commercial Weather Data

Rep. Smith Questions NOAA's Commitment to Commercial Weather Data

In a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan today, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee, questioned whether NOAA truly is committed to the idea of commercial partnerships to obtain weather satellite data to augment and avoid gaps in data from NOAA’s own satellite programs.  NOAA recently released a draft Commercial Space Policy, but Smith asserts that it simply “provides NOAA cover to continue to avoid commercial options.”

NOAA’s draft Commercial Space Policy was released on September 1.  Public comments are due by October 1.  It would set policy for NOAA to interact with the commercial sector for data buys, hosted payloads, rideshares, and launch services, but not for designing, building or operating government-owned spacecraft or data transfer services solely for dissemination purposes.

Smith complains in his letter to Sullivan that the draft policy took 2 years to produce, but is only 13 pages long.   It “does not provide sufficient details to give a true indication of NOAA’s willingness to actually engage in commercial partnerships” and “does not appear to solve any of the issues that continue to be raised on this matter,” he writes.

Among his criticisms are that the draft policy requires data to meet certain quality standards, but NOAA has not made any such standards public, and NOAA’s responsibilities as outlined in the draft “may become burdensome, making commercial acquisitions unnecessarily complex.”  He requests NOAA to provide his committee with documents and communications related to formulation of the draft and to NOAA’s public engagement related to it by October 7, 2015.

The House SS&T Committee has held a number of hearings on the potential of using data from commercial sources in NOAA’s weather forecasting activities over the past several years.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been a leader on this issue in the House.  (The National Weather Center is located in Norman, OK.)  At a February 2015 hearing he called on NOAA to “look outside the box” at commercial efforts like PlanetIQ, Spire, GeoOptics, Tempus Global Data and HySpecIQ to deliver GPS radio occultation or hyperspectral atmospheric data to augment weather forecasts.

NOAA operates two weather satellite constellations, one in polar orbit and one in geostationary orbit.   NOAA has expressed concern for years that gaps may develop between existing satellites in those constellations and their replacements – the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series.  Commercial data buy advocates argue that their data could fill in those gaps.

The House passed the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) in May that would create a pilot program for commercial space-based weather data and authorized $9 million for it. During markup of the bill, Bridenstine argued that the commercial approach would create resiliency and mitigate against the risks inherent in the “huge, monolithic” satellites NOAA currently relies upon.

Bridenstine tried to get that $9 million appropriated during House consideration of the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, but withdrew his amendment after CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) promised to work with the Senate to add it in conference on the bill.  The Senate Appropriations Committee did not include that $9 million, but does encourage NOAA to explore options for obtaining GPS radio occultation data from commercial sources in the report on its version of the bill.  

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act, S. 1331, in May that shares some of the same goals as H.R. 1561, but focuses more on improving procurement of government satellites.  The Senate has not voted on that bill yet.

One concern about NOAA using commercial weather satellite data is whether it could be shared on the same full, open and free basis as government data.  One of the “guiding principles” of the draft NOAA policy is that NOAA will continue to adhere to the full, open and free data policy bearing in mind U.S. commitments to the World Meteorological Organization and honoring existing partnerships with government, international and industry organizations.

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