Commercial Weather Bill Praised, but No Floor Vote in Forecast

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WASHINGTON — Aspiring commercial weather-data providers lauded the U.S. House Science Committee’s passage of a bill that would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to publish standards for commercial data buys by Dec. 31, and buy data from at least one such provider by Oct. 31, 2016.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), vice chairman of the House Science environment subcommittee, and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, passed the committee by voice vote March 26. Commercial weather advocate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), chairman of the subcommittee, is a co-sponsor.

The proposed legislation includes provisions similar to those Bridenstine added to a bill that passed the House last year only to die in the Senate. Now, with Congress adjourned until April 27, a floor vote on the new bill will wait until at least then. A House source said that as of April 1, there was no timetable for a floor vote.

“We are very pleased with the support behind this bipartisan effort and look forward to continued progress,” Conrad Lautenbacher, chief executive of GeoOptics of Pasadena, California, wrote in an April 1 email.

“We are extremely pleased with the committee’s recommendation to send the bill to the full House,” Mark Hurst, executive vice president, marketing, for Tempus Global Data of Ogden, Utah, wrote in an April 1 email. “Unanimity is something rare in Washington these days so it was such a pleasure to see everyone rally around improving our weather forecasting.”

Dan Stillman, a spokesman for Bethesda, Maryland-based PlanetiQ, declined to comment for this story.

PlanetiQ and GeoOptics are planning constellations of low-orbiting satellites equipped with GPS radio occultation sensors, which measure distortion of GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere to extrapolate pressure and temperature data. Tempus Global Data is focused on hyperspectral atmospheric sounding instruments that would be hosted aboard geostationary-orbiting satellites.

NOAA officials, most recently at a Feb. 12 hearing of the House Science environment subcommittee, have long said the agency is open to buying space-based weather data from aspiring commercial providers, so long as the companies can certify their data are up to NOAA standards. Currently this is impossible because NOAA has published no standards.

That would change if the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1561) becomes law. The measure sets a legal timetable for NOAA to publish the standards and competitively select at least one provider to sell the agency data to determine whether it can be easily folded into the National Weather Service’s forecasting models.

Citing an agency policy not to discuss pending legislation, NOAA spokesman John Leslie declined to comment on the bill.

Stephen Volz NOAA
Steve Volz, assistant administrator of the NOAA Satellite and Information Service. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson

In the Feb. 12 House hearing, Steve Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said that while the U.S. government should not be put on the hook to defray development expenses for would-be commercial weather companies, NOAA would be open to buying data from such companies.

PlanetiQ has not revealed how much financing it has raised to date, nor has it identified the contractors that will build and launch its satellites. The company’s primary GPS radio occultation sensor, Pyxis, will be manufactured by one of its backers, Moog Inc. of East Aurora, New York. PlanetiQ has been considering hosted payload arrangements that could get its sensor aloft as early as 2016.

According to GeoOptics’ website, the company plans to launch its first Cicero GPS radio occultation satellite in late 2015. Asked about satellite financing, construction and launch plans, Lautenbacher, a former NOAA administrator, said only “our website is up to date.”

Another company, San Francisco-based Spire, plans to launch a large constellation of cubesats with GPS radio occultation sensors and has raised $29 million to date. Spire spokeswoman Rebekah Choi, reached by email April 2, would not say whether any of the prototype satellites launched by the company to date carried a GPS radio occultation sensor.

NOAA currently gets GPS radio occultation data from the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC) constellation, a joint project of the United States and Taiwan.

A follow-on COSMIC-2 constellation is set to begin launching in 2016. An initial set of six satellites will head to an equatorial orbit that year, with six more launching in 2018 into the same high-inclination orbit used by the original COSMIC satellites.

Hurst, meanwhile, said Tempus Global Data will launch its first Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology sensor in early 2018. The sensor was developed by Utah State University for a canceled U.S. government mission. Tempus Global Data picked up the license to market the instrument last year after a similar arrangement with GeoMetWatch collapsed.