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Amid Concern Over Nation’s Weather-Forecasting System, Congress Eyes Commercial Solutions

This NOAA satellite image taken on Oct. 23, 2015 shows the Category 5 Hurricane Patricia moving over Mexico's Pacific Coast.

This NOAA satellite image taken on Oct. 23, 2015 shows the Category 5 Hurricane Patricia moving over Mexico's Pacific Coast. // NOAA/AP

Over the past year, Congress has pushed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- responsible for all U.S. weather forecast data -- to consider the importance commercial space-based weather satellites and data could have in improving the nation’s forecasts.

The congressional push, led by Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., who chairs the House science environmental subcommittee, is not falling on deaf ears at NOAA, even as the agency navigates the creation of two next-generation weather satellite constellations.

Pressed repeatedly Dec. 10 by members of the subcommittees on environment and oversight, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services, gave the clearest indication yet that commercial satellite data may soon find their way into NOAA’s weather forecasts.  

"The idea of [commercially] available data sets are not necessarily at odds with public services provided by NOAA if we can find the right terms and conditions for which to work with the commercial side to use their data in our models, in our operations," Volz said.

Securing data would be "the potential next step," Volz said, and doing so in a manner "that doesn't sacrifice those public goods."

"As the commercial sector becomes more capable and is able to deliver a more quality data product, I think there is certainly a possibility for strong engagement that can fit within our business model and can support a commercial sector better," he continued.  

NOAA released a draft document of its Commercial Space Policy in September to solicit and incorporate public feedback, and Dec. 7 held a public meeting with industry reps to engage the commercial weather satellite community and stakeholders.

Internally, Volz acknowledged management issues that helped lead to another launch delay of the first of the next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite, or GOES-R, from March 2016 to October 2016.

The GOES-R constellation is slated to replace the existing GOES fleet, which consists of two active satellites that monitor the U.S. 24/7 and a backup satellite. NOAA recently extended its lifetime expectancy for the GOES satellites despite an instrument failure aboard GOES-13.

The Government Accountability Office released a report during the Dec. 10 hearing that warned NOAA faces “an 11-month gap” in backup geostationary satellite coverage. The Commerce Department’s inspector general and GAO, which placed NOAA’s environmental satellite programs on its biennial High-Risk List, have repeatedly voiced concern over delays in the $10.9 billion GOES-R and the $11.3 billion Joint Polar Satellite System.

Testifying Dec. 10, Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at GAO, told Congress NOAA has only acted on six of 23 recommendations GAO has made since 2012 to strengthen its satellites acquisitions programs.

“I think we need to be more open with our risks,” Powner said, noting that NOAA had an opportunity before Congress in February to disclose it was unlikely to reach a March 2016 launch date for GOES-R. The agency also failed to disclose exactly how and why it ultimately decided this year to extend the expected life expectancy of the GOES satellites based on 10-year-old information.

“You need to be open of your risks to ensure these satellites get up there on time,” Powner said.

Bridenstine linked the rise of commercial vendors to the hurdles faced by NOAA as it operates two massive weather satellite operations. Commercial providers like PlanetiQ, which plans to launch the first commercial weather, climate and space weather satellite constellation in 2017, are stepping up where they see a need and new potential business.

“Commercial vendors are launching into space with clients that aren’t NOAA,” Bridenstine said. “They’re making the business case without the government involved.”

“I really believe that we can augment a lot of these challenges with commercial data," he continued. "I believe that it can reduce the cost. I think that's important as we develop this commercial industry that is going to be good for the taxpayer and good for those of us who are trying to protect lives and property.”

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