New NOAA Satellite Boss Shoots Down Commercial Weather Pilot Program

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WASHINGTON — The new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellite division said Feb. 12 the agency should not cordon off any of its budget to help would-be commercial weather satellite operators defray development expenses.

“That’s a higher-risk approach than I would prefer to take from the NOAA side,” Steve Volz, the new assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said here during a Feb. 12 hearing of the House Science environment subcommittee. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to develop a commercial capability that we might use in the future,” he added, emphasizing “might.”

Volz made that remark in the final minutes of a roughly two-hour hearing, during which Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla), the subcommittee’s new chairman, asked repeatedly if NOAA would be willing to set aside some of its 2016 satellite budget — the agency requested about $2.4 billion, up 6.5 percent from 2015 — for what he referred to as a commercial weather “pilot program.”

The hearing, which proceeded more or less free of partisan acrimony, marked the first public meeting of Volz and Bridenstine since their recent ascension to higher plateaus of influence in U.S. weather policy.

Volz, who left a senior post in NASA’s Earth Science Division in November, has been in charge of NOAA satellites for only about three months. Bridenstine, a sophomore congressman and strong commercial space proponent, got his chairman’s gavel Jan. 3 and wielded it for the first time in his Capitol Hill career Feb. 12. In an unusual, but not unprecedented, turn of events for a space hearing, Bridenstine formally swore in Volz and four other witnesses.

After the swearing-in, Volz made clear that his top priorities at NOAA are the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) programs, each of which is expected to cost about $11 billion to complete.

But Volz also made clear — in stronger language than he has used before — that NOAA is interested in, and one day likely will buy, data collected by independently operated and financed weather satellites.

“The capabilities of the commercial side … are likely to be very significant and are definitely worth evaluating and using,” Volz said. “There is a good probability we will be using some commercial data.”

To that end, Volz said, “we have a planned workshop at the end of April this year to sit down and show [commercial weather companies] how we do our requirements, and how they can match their developmental processes to work well with us.”

NOAA spokesman John Leslie said this briefing will take place at the NOAA Satellite Users Conference, to be held April 27 – May 1 at the Greenbelt Marriott Hotel in Greenbelt, Maryland.

So far, would-be commercial weather satellite operators have focused on collecting GPS radio occultation and hyperspectral atmospheric sounding data.

The head of one such company, which planning to launch a 12-satellite constellation of 100-kilogram, low Earth-orbiting GPS radio occultation satellites around 2017, said she does not need a NOAA contribution to make the books close.

“We have never asked NOAA to be an anchor tenant, nor does our business model depend on it,” PlanetiQ chief executive Anne Miglarese wrote in a statement to SpaceNews Feb. 12.

PlanetiQ has not said how much financing it has raised to date, or identified the contractors that will build and launch its satellites. The company’s primary GPS radio occultation sensor, called Pyxis, will be manufactured by one of its backers, Moog Inc., of East Aurora, New York.

GOES and JPSS

Bridenstine, in his usual refrain, said he does not advocate for wholesale commercial replacement of either JPSS or GOES, which despite ongoing development hiccups remain at the core of U.S. weather forecasting capabilities for the foreseeable future.

However, continuing difficulties in both programs, highlighted in recent U.S. Government Accountability Office reports, have only affirmed Bridenstine’s oft-expressed belief (which he repeated at the hearing) that “large monolithic [government] satellites may not be the way forward.”

The current primary U.S. polar-orbiter, Suomi NPP, was designed to operate through October 2016. Its successor, JPSS-1, will not launch until 2017, according to the plan NOAA rolled out this month in its 2016 budget request.

But the JPSS-1 launch date could slip because of technical difficulties with the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder being developed by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Azusa, California. The instrument’s delivery date to JPSS-1 prime Ball Aerospace &Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colorado, has now slipped to June, David Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s director of information technology management issues, said at the hearing.

If NOAA is lucky, and it thinks it will be, Suomi-NPP will well last beyond its five-year design life, Volz said. The NOAA satellite chief cited internal studies that show the satellite, conceived as a testbed for a canceled civil-military polar-orbiter and pressed into operational service following its 2011 launch, could last until about 2020. If Suomi NPP does fail early, NOAA-19, the last of the Polar Operational Environmental Satellite spacecraft built by Lockheed Martin, would be the primary U.S. polar weather satellite until JPSS-1 launches. NOAA-19 launched in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office warned in a Jan. 15 report, “Geostationary Weather Satellites: Launch Date Nears, but Remaining Schedule Risks Need to be Addressed,” that GOES-R, the first in a series of four U.S. coastal weather-watchers under contract to Lockheed, might miss its March 2016 launch date. Difficulties completing some of the satellite’s flight software and tests on time are to blame, the watchdog office wrote.

NOAA requested some $1.2 billion for the JPSS program in the 2016 budget request released Feb. 2, including $380 million for a new account that would begin work on a gap-filler polar satellite to launch in 2019, plus bulk-buys of instruments for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4. The JPSS program will maintain global weather coverage in the early afternoon hours through 2028.

For GOES, which would keep watch on U.S. coasts through 2036, NOAA requested $870 million for 2016.