House Appropriators Meet NOAA Request for Satellites, Block Climate Sensor Plans


Clarification: An earlier version of this story said the Deep Space Climate Observatory would launch in April 2015.

WASHINGTON — A bill approved May 8 by the U.S. House Appropriations Committee fully funds the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2015 request for next-generation polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites, but provides no funding for a series of instruments dropped from the polar-orbiting program.

Of the roughly $5.3 billion approved for NOAA as part of a $52 billion Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill, about $2 billion would go toward satellite and ground systems procurement. Within that total, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) programs would receive about $916 million and $981 million, respectively, for 2015 — about what the White House requested in March.

However, the bill does not provide the $15 million NOAA sought for an account called Solar Irradiance, Data and Rescue, which was aimed at finding some way to get three instruments — including the Total Solar Irradiance climate change sensor and an international search and rescue payload — to space. NOAA created this account as part of its 2015 budget request after Congress provided no money last year for a polar free-flyer satellite that would have carried the three instruments to space.

NOAA was considering, among other things, launching the climate change instrument as a hosted payload. That effort would be put on indefinite hold if House appropriators get their way. The bill must still clear the full House and be reconciled with companion legislation taking shape in the Senate before making it to President Barack Obama’s desk.

House appropriators also want NOAA to think twice about allowing NASA, the new custodian of climate measurements stripped out of the JPSS program in an omnibus spending bill signed in January, to put the Radiation Budget Instrument climate sensor aboard JPSS-2. That satellite, which would be the third in the JPSS program, is set to launch in 2021.

Within 60 days of the bill becoming law, NOAA would have to complete a report detailing the cost and schedule requirements of fitting the NASA-provided Radiation Budget Instrument on JPSS-2.

“The Committee is concerned that development of the … instrument will introduce risk into the program,” lawmakers wrote in the explanatory report accompanying the bill. House appropriators were silent on NOAA’s plans to launch a similar instrument, the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System, aboard JPSS-1 in 2017.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee’s bill also gives NOAA $6.8 million, as requested, to tune up its satellite ground systems for the 2016 launch of six Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate satellites being jointly funded by the U.S. Air Force and Taiwanese government.

These polar-orbiting satellites, known as Cosmic-2, will feed data into U.S. weather prediction models by observing distortion of GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere. Commercial alternatives to the proposed U.S.-Taiwan GPS radio occultation satellites exist, and House appropriators have ordered NOAA to study those and provide a report about the possibilities within 120 days of the bill becoming law. This study must also identify the cost of the government funded radio occultation constellation, according to the bill report lawmakers prepared.

Meanwhile, the bill the Committee approved May 8 underfunds the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite by about $10 million compared with NOAA’s roughly $25 million request while providing about $20 million for the Deep Space Climate Observatory, some $500,000 less than NOAA is seeking.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, is set to launch both of those satellites aboard Falcon 9 rockets. Jason-3 would lift off in May 2015, while the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a repurposed leftover from an Earth-observing mission conceived in 1998 by then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore but never flown, would launch around April 2015.