NOAA could slash future communications costs if commercial services pan out

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AUSTIN, Texas — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency may be able to slash the cost of transmitting data from its next generation of weather satellites by turning to commercial communications services.

 Through GOES Rebroadcast, NOAA transmits full-resolution calibrated images and data to customers, like the images from Harris Corp.'s Advanced Baseline Imager shown here. This is the type of service that could be handled by commercial communications firms in the future. Credit: Harris
Through GOES Rebroadcast, NOAA transmits full-resolution calibrated images and data to customers, like the images from Harris Corp.’s Advanced Baseline Imager shown here. This is the type of service that could be handled by commercial communications firms in the future. Credit: Harris

That was one of the takeaways of the NOAA Satellite Observing System Architecture (NSOSA) study, an extensive analysis of spacecraft the agency will need once it completes its Joint Polar Satellite System and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) programs presented Jan. 10 at the American Meteorological Society meeting here.

“The net cost savings if one were to go with commercial services would be in the range of 40 to 60 percent,” said Julian Breidenthal, senior system engineer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

That does not mean, however, that NOAA will turn immediately to commercial communications services to share data from its satellites in geostationary or polar orbit. The NSOSA study is focused on NOAA’s space architecture from the 2030s to the 2050s and its authors evaluated commercial communications services available now, like the ones offered by Iridium Communications and Globalstar, as well as ones likely to become available in the future, including constellations being developed by OneWeb, SpaceX, Google and others.

For the study, NOAA compared its current approach, which relies on satellites to broadcast data to multiple users, with two alternatives: sending a hosted communications payloads into orbit on commercial satellites or relying on commercial communications services to relay data to customers.

The hosted payload option proved expensive because NOAA would pay to build the payload plus fees to house it on a commercial satellite for 15 year or more. For the legacy approach, NOAA looked at the cost of including communications payloads on four geostationary satellites and found those payloads accounted for 8.8 percent of the cost of the spacecraft, 26 percent of its mass and 58 percent of its power.

Not all NOAA’s space-based data broadcasting requirements could be handled by commercial communications satellites. There are no commercial services to support NOAA’s Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking. Plus the agency will need to take into account factors other than cost, such as reliability and availability, before it relies on commercial communications services.

Still, the report’s findings were dramatic. Moving GOES Rebroadcast, which transmits full resolution, calibrated, data directly from satellites to customers, to a commercial internet service provider could cut the cost of communications 89 percent. Transferring the GOES data collection platform, which transmits data from river gauges and other terrestrial sensors to users via satellite, to a commercial service could slash the cost of the effort by more than 96 percent. Replacing the Emergency Managers Weather Information Network, which sends out National Weather Service warnings, watches and forecasts, with terrestrial internet service combined with VHF rebroadcast or commercial satellite internet could produce an 89 percent savings.