Commentary | A Better Way To Weather the Satellite Gap

by and

Despite the chorus of concerned voices that have sounded the alarm of impending gaps in the United States’ weather satellite coverage for some time, the gravity and urgency of the situation are just now sinking in after a report that warns of “catastrophic national consequences.”

In the same breath, however, the report recommends addressing this developing crisis using the same government-led approach that created it, while ignoring the potential contributions of a private weather satellite industry that could largely make up for the gaps, help prevent future gaps, increase innovation and at the same time reduce government costs and risks.

Satellite data account for more than 90 percent of the data that go into weather forecast models, and data from satellites that orbit the planet from pole to pole are particularly important. Multiple studies suggest that, left unmitigated, a gap in this data “would erode everyday weather forecasts and expose the nation to a 25% chance of missing extreme event forecasts that matter most,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The likelihood and timing of gaps in polar-orbiting satellite data have been the subject of much debate over the past few years. Now, though, NOAA says it takes “very seriously” a report by an independent review team that concludes “there is an unacceptably high probability of a gap” starting in 2016, as NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite reaches the end of its designed lifetime and before the planned launch of JPSS-1 in 2017.

Should JPSS-1 suffer a launch failure or premature end to its mission, the report warns of a second gap until the planned launch of JPSS-2 in 2022.

The review team recommends NOAA immediately embark on a small “gap-filler” satellite, and start procurement for the next three full-size polar-orbiting satellites with the option for three more. However, a preliminary analysis by NOAA and NASA suggests it could take five years — well past the start of the first expected gap — to build and launch a gap-filler spacecraft.

Moreover, even if implementation of a gap-filler could be accelerated, merely funding the same billion-dollar satellite programs whose “dysfunctional” management by NOAA led to the gaps in the first place, according to a 2012 assessment by the same panel, fails to fix the fundamental problem — our nation’s weather satellites are getting old, and the system for replacing them in a timely and cost-effective manner is broken.

Given the potential for satellite data gaps to significantly decrease weather forecast accuracy and increase risks to life, property and our economy, it is the responsibility of NOAA; its parent agency, the Department of Commerce; and the whole of U.S. government to pursue multiple strategies that not only mitigate the gaps but also protect the nation from facing such dangerous circumstances ever again.

Had either of two teams asked by NOAA this year to study gap-mitigation strategies explored the potential utility of commercial data, they would have found a maturing private weather satellite industry clamoring to augment our national systems with high-quality data that would increase forecast accuracy at a fraction of the cost of government programs.

Importantly, if given the go-ahead within six months, commercial satellite operators could get to orbit in time to reduce the impacts of a gap starting in 2016. Investors are so optimistic about the market for commercial weather data, thanks to increasing worldwide demand from the public and private sectors, that they are willing to finance satellite development and launch. That means the government wouldn’t pay a dime until the data are delivered.

To get the ball rolling, nothing more is needed than for the government to signal its willingness to purchase data once the satellites are flying, something NOAA has been inexplicably unwilling to do, despite repeated urging from Congress and industry. Mobilizing the commercial weather satellite sector would reduce the risk and impacts of a gap, strengthen the global observing system and make it more resilient against the threat of future gaps, lower government costs and create high-tech U.S. jobs.

This wouldn’t be the first time government and the private sector teamed up to respond to a developing crisis involving satellites. Just a decade ago, in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community partnered with an emerging commercial industry of satellite imagery providers to meet a rising demand that was outpacing the capacity of government systems.

In fact, there are numerous examples of government functions that have evolved into commercial industries — to the mutual benefit of government, the private sector and taxpayers. Most recently, NASA has helped facilitate a thriving commercial space transportation industry that is making spaceflight more affordable, sustainable and innovative.

Weather satellites are now poised to make a similar transition. A green light can’t come soon enough for commercial operators ready to partner with government to stabilize and increase the flow of data critical to supporting a global social good — accurate weather forecasts that help protect the lives and livelihoods of Americans and citizens worldwide.

 

Anne Hale Miglarese is chief executive officer of PlanetiQ. David J. Crain is chief executive officer of GeoMetWatch.