NOAA issues timeline for commercial weather data pilot

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — With $3 million on hand from Congress and another $5 million sought for 2017, NOAA is setting out to buy test data from one or more of the commercial weather satellite systems heading to market.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a plan April 10 for conducting first Commercial Weather Data Pilot, a congressionally directed demonstration effort aimed at validating the viability of incorporating commercial data into NOAA’s forecast models.

The first Commercial Weather Data Pilot, or CWDP, will kick off this summer with a solicitation for GPS radio occultation data of the sort NOAA and Eumetsat have been using for years to improve weather forecasts. GPS radio occultation receivers that have flown on a handful of research satellites and the U.S.-Taiwanese COSMIC constellation obtain highly detailed temperature and humidity soundings by observing tiny distortions of U.S. Air Force GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere.

While the U.S. and Taiwan are preparing to replace the six original COSMIC satellites with the first six of 12 planned satellites slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy perhaps late this year, meteorologists would like to see scores of additional GPS radio occultation satellites in orbit.

Several companies, including GeoOptics, PlanetiQ and Spire, have announced plans to address that demand by deploying constellations of dozens to hundreds of small satellites equipped with GPS radio occultation receivers. Spire launched its first four operational satellites last September.

NOAA told Congress in a report publicly released April 10 that is selected GPS radio occultation “as the most suitable data type for the CWDP” based on formal input it gathered from industry last year.

Sometime between July and the end of September, according to the report, NOAA expects to solicit pilot data “from the full range of potentially viable vendors” — including firms with satellites already on orbit, or from, systems not yet deployed but in the advanced stages of instrument, satellite, and mission development.”

“For missions not yet deployed on orbit, evaluating pre-launch data could aid NOAA in understanding and scoping the expectations for what the on- orbit data stream might look like,” NOAA wrote. “The evaluations provided by NOAA of pre-launch data may be useful to commercial entities as they finalize their flight activities.”

NOAA expects to spend about one-third of the CWDP’s projected $8 million budget to buy data from commercial vendors with the remaining two-thirds used for evaluation.

NOAA intends to spend the latter half of 2016 ingesting and evaluating the pilot data, producing an initial assessment report by the end of March 2017.

NOAA says it will incorporate lessons from the CWDP into next-generation satellite observation planning activities currently underway in NESDIS.

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

Writing in the April 11 issue of SpaceNews Magazine, Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA Satellite and Information Services, said the CWDP “demos will facilitate the commercial sector’s ability to contribute to improved NOAA products and services while ensuring we uphold our responsibility to provide high-quality forecasts through the use of proven, trusted data.

“It’s a win-win solution: commercial firms gain a trial-run for their data through an evaluation process conducted by NOAA, and NOAA receives information needed to consider sustained use of that commercial data operationally.”

Volz is moderating the “Evolving Architectures for Space-based Environmental Intelligence” panel discussion at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Panelists include: Chirag Parikh, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Source Strategies Office; Antoine de Chassy, Spire Global’s vice president of business development; and Eric Webster, Harris Corp’s vice president and general manager of environmental solutions.

This year’s Space Symposium also features a keynote address at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday by U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading advocate for greater use of commercial weather data.