A larger share of NOAA’s declining space budget would go to polar satellites


Updated Feb. 10 at 10:18 p.m. Eastern

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s campaign to sustain its fleet of polar-orbiting environmental satellites would receive more money next year even as NOAA’s overall space spending would dip slightly under the 2017 budget plan the White House sent Congress Feb. 9.

U.S. President Barack Obama is asking for $393 million in 2017 to fund work on future polar-orbit satellites. Congress appropriated $370 million in 2016 for Polar Follow-on, an initiative to begin building two final spacecraft for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), an environmental monitoring constellation. NOAA plans to launch JPSS-1 in 2017 and JPSS-2 in 2021.

With the additional $23 million proposed in 2017, NOAA would be able to continue work on JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, while taking steps to mitigate the risk that a premature failure of JPSS-2 would cause a gap in critical weather data used in forecasts and warnings.

In case JPSS-2 fails to launch or its instruments malfunction, NOAA is preparing contingency plans for a launch of JPSS-3 in 2023, a year earlier than planned, with only two of its four instruments.

In that contingency, the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder and Cross-track Infrared Sounder would travel into orbit on JPSS-3 and the other two instruments being built for the JPSS-3 mission, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite and the Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite-Nadir, would be integrated on JPSS-4, according to NOAA budget documents,

For its geostationary weather satellite constellation, NOAA is requesting $752.8 million in 2017, $85 million less than it requested in 2016, to continue work to build and launch four GOES-R series satellites. The first in that series is scheduled for launch in October 2016, according to the budget.

Overall, NOAA’s satellite budget would dip slightly if Congress approves the president’s plan. NOAA is requesting $2.3 billion for its National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, about $49 million less than it received in 2016.

NOAA is seeking $3.75 million, an increase of $1.45 million, for its Deep Space Climate Observatory, the space weather mission based on a satellite designed originally as an Earth observation spacecraft during the Clinton Administration and stored for about 10 years before its launch in February 2015. “As NOAA has experienced more frequent anomalies than anticipated on DSCOVR, the satellite has required more time, engineering, analysis, and support than envisioned years ago when the mission was initiated,” according to the budget document.

Nevertheless, NOAA will rely on DSCOVR to provide space weather observations from the spring of 2016 through 2022. Under the agency’s Space Weather Follow On program, NOAA plans to begin drafting requirements in 2017 to launch two satellites each carrying two sensors to obtain solar wind data and imagery of coronal mass ejections. The budget blueprint asks Congress for $2.5 million for the Space Weather Follow On program in 2017, more than twice the $1.2 million appropriated for the effort in 2016.

In contrast, NOAA is asking Congress for only $8.1 million in 2017 for the U.S.-Taiwan COSMIC-2 constellation of 12 GPS radio occultation satellites, $2 million less than the 2016 budget. NOAA plans to obtain data from these satellites and use it in NOAA’s weather forecasts. The first six satellites, known as COSMIC-2A, are scheduled to launch in 2016 on the second demonstration flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

The new budget plan reveals for the first time that NOAA is considering the idea of purchasing radio occultation data from commercial firms preparing to offer that type of data instead of launching a second batch of six sensors in fiscal year 2020.

“With this request, NOAA will continue to explore options to acquire Global Navigation Satellite System Radio Occultation data from the polar orbit,” according to the NOAA budget document known as the Blue Book. “This will include evaluating a purchase of commercially available data as well as investigating launch vehicle options and sustaining the international partnership with Taiwan to support a NOAA-built second set of sensors.”

In another sign of the agency’s growing interest in purchasing weather data from commercial satellite operators, NOAA will “seek opportunities to test and validate data from commercial satellite systems and, if testing is successful, support pilot commercial data buys for operational use,” the budget document adds.