Bridenstine Bullish on Commercial Weather Bill Despite Dim Lame-duck Prospects

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WASHINGTON — If a House-passed bill that would pave the way for pumping more commercial satellite data into U.S. weather forecasting models dies in the Senate after the November elections, it will be quickly reintroduced next year, Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said Sept. 16 at a space industry luncheon here.

Bridenstine’s Weather Forecasting Improvement Act (H.R. 2413) took almost a year to make it out of the House, which passed the measure in April only after Bridenstine, a self-described “limited government conservative,” reached an accord with Democratic colleagues on the House Science Committee to cut out parts that would have de-emphasized climate research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in favor of a sharper focus on weather programs.

Bridenstine said there remains only “a slim chance” that the Senate Commerce Committee will take up the measure when Congress reconvenes after the Nov. 4 elections for a lame-duck session. If the bill does not pass before the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3, Bridenstine said he would quickly reintroduce it.

“We need to move from the government owning and operating huge satellites to a day when the government can purchase data from private satellite operators,” Bridenstine said during the Washington Business Space Roundtable lunch. “The historic government monopoly of weather satellites and associated data is now at the point of creating unnecessary costs, delays and risks that could dramatically degrade U.S. weather forecasting.”

Ultimately, Bridenstine wants to “get the government out of the way” by replacing large NOAA-operated weather satellites that must be launched by some of the biggest rockets in the U.S. with constellations of smaller spacecraft launched atop smaller rockets.

That goal goes beyond what the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act would do if it became law.

NOAA, operator of the U.S. civilian weather satellite fleet, is in no position to go cold turkey on the big polar-orbiting and geostationary spacecraft it depends on to feed the National Weather Service’s forecasting models. The U.S. government has already signed billions of dollars’ worth of contracts with industry to ensure continuity of polar and geostationary observations well into the next decade, and beyond.

In addition, NOAA has yet to study whether the types of weather data to be gathered by planned private constellations — which have yet to launch — could be the primary feedstock for the National Weather Service’s complex numerical forecasting models.

It is that specific uncertainty Bridenstine’s bill would address. The measure would require NOAA to closely examine how GPS radio occultation sensors and geostationary hyperspectral sounders — instruments at the heart of small-sat constellations planned by PlanetIQ of Bethesda, Maryland, and GeoMetWatch of Las Vegas, respectively — might fit into existing forecasting models. The results of this so-called Observing System Simulation Experiment would have to be released publicly.

Radio occultation is the process by which a satellite infers humidity and temperature levels by observing the distortion of GPS signals passing through the atmosphere. Hyperspectral sounding instruments can make finer distinctions between the features of different objects they observe from space than can multispectral instruments flying aboard such satellites as Landsat and Suomi NPP, NOAA’s newest polar orbiter.

In the case of radio occultation, at least, it is not yet clear to NOAA that such data could stand in for the observations made by either infrared and microwave instruments, such as those slated to fly on the Joint Polar Satellite System — a series spacecraft expected to cost NOAA $11 billion through 2028.

“There are camps out there that believe large numbers of these [radio occultation satellites] can stand alone and do the job [but] our weather service research hasn’t really shown that yet,” Thomas Burns, deputy assistant administrator for systems in NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Systems Division, said here in a Sept. 17 presentation to the National Research Council’s Committee on Earth Science Applications from Space.

Still, Burns said, radio occultation provides good data in its own right, and can be used to calibrate data from different infrared and microwave sounding instruments.

Ahead of Bridenstine’s drumbeating for commercial weather satellite and Burns’ presentation to the National Research Council, NASA announced Sept. 15 that it awarded Exelis Geospatial Systems of Fort Wayne, Indiana, a $22 million contract extension to provide the Cross-track Infrared Sounder instrument that will launch aboard NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 in 2021. The instrument will essentially be a copy of the one now flying on Suomi NPP, which was converted from testbed to operational weather satellite after its launch in 2011. Exelis is also building a copy of the instrument for the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 spacecraft, which is set to launch no later than late March 2018. NASA manages the construction and launch of the weather satellites NOAA operates.