Four Things the Space Foundation Wants To See the U.S. Do Differently with Weather Satellites

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WASHINGTON — With the U.S. weather satellite system facing a potential 18-36 month gap in some forecasting capabilities beginning as soon as next year, the Space Foundation released a paper July 23 outlining the steps the United States should take to “ensure the long-term success” of the system.

The paper,  “Weather Satellites: Critical Technology in Uncertain Environments,” stresses the importance of weather satellites — the United States suffered from 14 weather disasters that cost more than $1 billion or more each — and includes the following recommendations:

1. “Program offices should provide accurate and stable life-cycle cost estimates for weather satellite programs, and Congress should respond with full and stable funding for these programs.”

Space Foundation research analyst Mariel Borowitz, the paper’s author, said weather satellite programs consistently have received less funding than requested, a common occurrence for many government programs, but one that led to changes in schedule, delays and, in the end greater expenses.

To counter this problem, Congress should fully fund three programs, the Joint Polar Satellite System, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite System and the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate weather satellite programs. Providing full funding would “prevent further launch delays, mitigate potential gap delays, and avoid slowdowns that lead to increased life-cycle costs.”

2. “The United States should seek opportunities to increase international cooperation on weather satellite programs to help decrease costs and increase capabilities.”

The paper notes that only seven countries own weather satellites, but all require weather data. 

“Rather than building redundant systems to collect this data, it is possible to coordinate data collection” through joint constellation planning, the report reads.

3. “The United States should explore the potential for working with commercial weather satellite data providers to augment current weather satellite capabilities and improve weather forecasting.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration already buys data to monitor ocean color and ice. Several U.S. companies, notably GeoMetWatch, GeoOptics and PlanetiQ, are developing commercial satellite constellations with the goal of selling weather data to NOAA and other government and private-sector customers. 

“Innovative new ideas in the commercial sector may lead to new technologies for which the government does not have to pay research and development costs,” the report says. “Creative licensing agreements, for example, those based on timelines of the data, may provide opportunities for meeting necessary requirements.”

4. “The United States should conduct a comprehensive review of its weather satellite program portfolio to determine the correct level and distribution of funding to achieve the desired capabilities.”

“With billions of dollars of property and productivity and thousands of lives at stake, the United States must determine whether it is providing the correct level of funding, management and strategic direction for its weather systems,” the report says.