NOAA reschedules next round of commercial weather data program to 2018

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WASHINGTON — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will wait until next spring to begin a second round of a commercial satellite weather data pilot program as it wraps up the analysis of the program’s initial round.

Karen St. Germain, director of the Office of System Architecture and Advanced Planning at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, said Oct. 23 that responses to a draft request for proposals (RFP) released earlier this year and market research led NOAA to push back the release of a formal RFP for the second round of the agency’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot program.

“We decided not to release that RFP right away,” she said at a meeting of the Space Studies Board’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space in Boulder, Colorado. “We’ll release it early in the third quarter of FY 2018.” The third quarter of fiscal year 2018 begins in April 2018.

NOAA is completing a review of data collected in the first round of the program. The agency issued contracts in September 2016 with a combined value of more than $1 million to GeoOptics and Spire for GPS radio occultation data collected by those companies’ satellites.

The period of performance of the contracts concluded at the end of April, at which time only Spire was able to deliver data. “GeoOptics was not able to provide data within the window,” she said, because of delays in launching the company’s first satellites. “The contract was bilaterally terminated. We did not spend any money with GeoOptics.” The GeoOptics contract was the larger of the two, valued at $695,000.

The initial round of the program, St. Germain said, focused simply on the ability of the companies to provide data as well as an analysis of the quality of the data. A report about that analysis should be released “fairly shortly,” she said, but added that the quality of the data is, for now, not yet ready for operational use in supporting weather forecasting. “Coming out of pilot [round] one, we were not able to demonstrate that it was ready for operations.”

The second round of the program will go beyond simply procuring and analyzing GPS radio occultation data. St. Germain said NOAA will examine other issues associated with the use of commercial data, ranging from information security to the timeliness and availability of the data, as well as data licensing and sharing issues. “We’re trying to roll everything that we learned from pilot number one into pilot number two,” she said.

The second round will use funds not spent on round one as well as additional funds appropriated in fiscal year 2017. The program received $5 million in 2017, and NOAA requested $3 million for 2018. “We expect round two to be a larger effort,” she said.

However, the number of companies able to participate is still limited. GeoOptics launched its first three satellites as secondary payloads on a Soyuz rocket in July, but those satellites reportedly are among those on that mission that malfunctioned for mysterious reasons. Another company, PlanetiQ, also has plans to deploy a constellation of cubesats to collect GPS radio occultation data, but has yet to launch its first satellites.

Future rounds of the program, St. Germain said, will incorporate other types of commercial data beyond GPS radio occultation. The focus on GPS radio occultation data is because it is “the most mature of the commercial weather data types,” she said.

NOAA’s study of commercial GPS radio occultation data is not linked to the agency’s decision this month, made jointly with Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology, to terminate development of a second set of six Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) 2 satellites, known as COSMIC-2B. The COSMIC-2 satellites, like the original COSMIC satellites launched more than a decade ago, collect GPS radio occultation data for weather forecasting.

“Those were not related decisions,” she said when asked by a committee member if the commercial weather data effort played any role in the COSMIC-2B cancellation. “The COSMIC-2B decision was really driven by funding availability on both sides.” She noted that both NOAA and Taiwan had problems lining up funding for those satellites.

Decisions on how to obtain the GPS radio occultation data the COSMIC-2B satellites would provide will likely be made by new leadership at NOAA. The White House announced Oct. 11 the nomination of Barry Myers, the chief executive of commercial weather company AccuWeather, as NOAA administrator. Timothy Galludet, nominated Sept. 1 to be second-in-command at NOAA, was confirmed by the Senate Oct. 5.

“When our new leadership is in place, we will work with them on a path forward for the core backbone radio occultation observations,” St. Germain said.

NASA’s Earth science division, meanwhile, is moving ahead with its own smallsat data purchase program. The agency announced plans last November to purchase up to $25 million in data from commercial smallsat systems in 2017.

“We’re coming at it from a fundamentally different, complementary, and coordinated” approach to NOAA’s data purchase effort, said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science division, at the same meeting. Rather than looking for specific types of data, NASA is casting a broader net to gather data from commercial systems and determine if they are use to NASA research efforts.

“We’re trying to learn what’s out there and what might be a good deal for the government,” he said.

Freilich said the agency got “quite good response” to a request for information issued last year, and he expects to issue a formal solicitation once a final fiscal year 2018 spending bill is passed. NASA requested $20 million for the program in its fiscal year 2018 budget proposal.