Led by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), the House is calling on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Department of Defense to look into utilizing commercial sources of space-based weather data to augment the nation’s weather forecasting capabilities.
With a mandate from Congress, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are launching new pilot projects to explore the possibility of using commercial, space-based sources of data for weather forecasting and prediction.
Most of the observational data currently ingested into the nation’s weather forecasting models come from federally-operated or international platforms – including ground-based instruments but especially a network of polar-orbiting and geostationary satellite systems. A handful of companies, such as PlanetiQ, GeoOptics, Spire, and Tempus, are now angling to enter the market for providing space-based weather data, prompting Congress, NOAA, and most recently DOD, to consider partnering with the private sector to purchase and incorporate such data into the nation’s weather forecasting systems.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), chairman of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, has been the most vocal champion of the private sector approach, calling commercial data buys one of the most important policies NOAA and DOD can adopt to rein in the costs of the nation’s major satellite systems. Members of Congress from both parties and the Government Accountability Office have lamented that NOAA’s next generation satellite systems under development have been plagued by mismanagement, billion-dollar cost overruns, and multi-year acquisition and construction delays. In an April 12 speech at the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Bridenstine made the fiscal case for moving to a commercial approach to acquiring space-based weather data, saying it is the only path to “dramatic affordability gains”:
Nascent commercial weather satellites have the capacity to generate more data and sometimes better data for the American weather enterprise. We must shift the paradigm from relying primarily on government-procured, owned, and operated, billion dollar ‘Battlestar Galactica’ satellites, to a new paradigm in which government buys data and services delivered by the private sector and deliberately plans commercial capabilities.…
According to Bridenstine, adding commercial sources for weather data will not only reduce costs to government but also stimulate innovation and increase the resiliency of the nation’s weather satellite systems.
Bridenstine, who also sits on the House Armed Services Committee, sees this as a national security imperative as well as a fiscal one. At a March 16 subcommittee hearing on NOAA’s fiscal year 2017 budget, he reminded the sole witness, NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan, of the National Weather Service security breach by Chinese hackers in September 2014, which compelled NOAA to bring down key satellites for a period of time. Also, in 2007 the Chinese used a direct descent anti-satellite missile to shoot down one of their own satellites in low-earth orbit. Bridenstine explained, “The reason I think it is important for us to take advantage of commercial is, quite frankly, to very quickly disaggregate and distribute the architecture…” in case of a targeted attack by the Chinese or others on U.S. space assets.
At this time, commercial space-based platforms are not capable of replacing the nation’s major polar-orbiting and geostationary satellite systems, such as the Joint Polar Satellite System or the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series. Instead, the companies intend to utilize fleets of smaller, more nimble satellites – called microsatellites - that feature innovative remote sensing technologies such as GPS radio occultation (GPS-RO) and hyperspectral sounding. NOAA has identified GPS-RO, already proven in space with the COSMIC satellite system, as a technology that is both ripe for commercial adoption and which has the greatest potential for improving weather prediction.
Bridenstine pushing commercial weather data buys through multiple legislative vehicles
Through hearings and advancement of the “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act,” sponsored by Bridenstine, the subcommittee chairman has been pushing NOAA to explore the idea of commercial data buys for at least the last few years. Bridenstine’s subcommittee and the full House Science Committee drafted and re-drafted the weather research bill in 2014 and 2015 before the House passed it on May 19 of last year.
While the bill focus on research-to-operations, it would also require NOAA to develop a strategy to buy commercial GPS-RO and hyperspectral sounding data. The weather agency would also be required to publish data standards and specifications for space-based commercial weather data and enter into at least one pilot contract with a private sector entity capable of providing data.
The “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act” is not yet law, but Congress has nonetheless found success in pushing commercial weather data provisions through other vehicles, including appropriations law. NOAA is beginning to give the sourcing of commercial, space-based weather data serious consideration, including by implementing a Commercial Weather Data Pilot project authorized in the explanatory statement that accompanied the fiscal year 2016 year-end appropriations law. The explanatory statement directs NOAA to provide $3 million to create a project “to assess the potential viability of commercial weather data in its weather modeling and forecasting…[and] to purchase, evaluate, and calibrate available data.”
NOAA has begun to comply, including by issuing its Commercial Space Policy in January, releasing its draft NESDIS Commercial Space Activities Assessment on April 8, and delivering a report to Congress on its plans for the Commercial Weather Data Pilot project on April 10. In addition, NOAA is increasing resources devoted to its Office of Space Commerce, with which private sector companies will engage through requests for information, proposals, and data buys. The agency’s fiscal year 2017 budget request also proposes $5 million for a second year of the Commercial Weather Data Pilot. Of the funds devoted to the pilot, NOAA expects to allot approximately one-third to purchase data from companies and approximately two-thirds for evaluation of that data.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has also been considering using commercial data to meet gaps it will face in its weather forecasting capabilities. These gaps are now pressing, following Congress’ termination of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) in the fiscal year 2016 appropriations law. Without DMSP, DOD may need to eventually rely on the commercial sector for up to 80 percent of its observational weather data.
On April 27, the House Armed Services Committee approved language, also championed by Bridenstine, in the draft fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which would create a parallel $3 million Commercial Weather Data Pilot project in DOD. The full committee approved the NDAA, including the commercial weather data buy language, by a vote of 60 to 2.
NOAA administrator cautious about commercial weather data
Throughout the unfolding action in the House, NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan has remained generally skeptical of the value of commercial weather data, calling weather forecasts a public good and underscoring the importance of the validity, reliability, and security of the data ingested into NOAA’s weather forecasting models. Her prepared testimony at the March 16 hearing did not address the topic, but Chairman Bridenstine jumped right to the matter during the question and answer period, asking Sullivan, “Can you share with us how you see [the NOAA process] working, as far as integrating commercial data…?”
Sullivan responded that the verdict is still out on the value of private data:
We see it as a very promising prospect, and are moving accordingly to have the opportunity and the ability to test and evaluate it. It is a nascent proposition that the private sector can indeed provide such data. So the process and the procedures we’re laying out here will give us the opportunity under the pilot programs to do the testing and evaluating that can confirm whether in fact the data quality and reliability meet the standards required to sustain the accuracy and reliability of our forecasts.
Another issue giving Sullivan pause is that the U.S. and its international partners share weather data openly, a policy which enables NOAA and international weather agencies to run forecasting models with the best available data possible. Indeed, NOAA receives more data from its international partners than it provides. In particular, NOAA officials have cited a need to comply with World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Resolution 40, to which the U.S. is a party. That resolution calls for free and open exchange of meteorological data critical to weather and climate prediction. NOAA officials have argued that using privately owned weather data in forecasting would be hard to reconcile with this data-sharing principle.
Unprompted, Bridenstine addressed the WMO issue during the hearing, insisting that, while the U.S. should abide by Resolution 40, work-arounds are possible:
I have heard from countless weather and data experts that WMO Resolution 40 does not require the release of all data to the world. In fact, it lists out specific types, and in some cases amounts of data, that is open for sharing. I do believe weather is a public good, and I understand the advantages the United States gets from our partnerships with other countries. However, there is a burgeoning weather satellite industry sitting on the sidelines because they are concerned that if they sell data to NOAA you will turn around and give it away for free, which completely destroys the marketplace before it begins.
When Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) pressed Sullivan on the matter later in the hearing, saying he was with Bridenstine, the administrator reiterated that NOAA is “intrigued” by the prospect of commercial weather data. She explained, though, that it is necessary for the agency to exercise caution:
It’s…still a quite nascent prospect to actually have data flows from private sector satellites. … There’s some hardware in orbit from at least one company that I’m aware of, but really nothing proven to the level that we require for ingesting something into the National Weather Service. …If we make a mistake on that we…degrade the forecast that...Americans are depending on every single day. So our posture and our engagement with the private sector in this regard is…tempered by that concern to make sure we work together to define the best path forward that does not jeopardize the quality of American weather forecasting.
Meanwhile, a number of the private companies are moving ahead with satellite development and deployment and are counting on NOAA to eventually be a major purchaser of their data. In September 2015, Spire launched four of its Lemur-2 cubesats, effectively deploying the world’s first commercial weather satellite network. PlanetiQ plans to deploy its initial set of GPS-RO microsatellites in 2017.