Commentary | Private-sector Provision of Radio Occultation Data

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In recent months there has been a lot of discussion about how the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should invest in the private sector to provide valuable meteorological data to NOAA through a commercial “data buy.” Radio occultation is one data set that has been mentioned frequently. It has been argued that the private sector can provide NOAA with radio occultation data quicker and less expensively, and at lower risk, than through traditional satellite procurement programs.

Radio occultation is a relatively simple and inexpensive way of obtaining vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature and water vapor in the troposphere and stratosphere (roughly from the surface to 40 kilometers) and electron density in the ionosphere. These variables have been shown to be extremely valuable for weather forecasting and research, climate monitoring and space weather forecasting, complementing and adding value to other NOAA satellite sounding systems, in particular the Joint Polar Satellite System.

A program called COSMIC, for Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate, has proved the cost-effectiveness of this new satellite observing system, which is an order of magnitude less expensive than other NOAA weather satellites. COSMIC, launched in April 2006, is a constellation of six small satellites developed under a partnership between Taiwan and the United States. Taiwan has been the major financial contributor to COSMIC, paying roughly 80 percent of the total costs of about $120 million. The U.S. component of COSMIC was supported by a coalition of U.S. agencies including the National Science Foundation, NASA, NOAA, the Air Force and the Navy. COSMIC was developed on time and within budget, an outstanding management achievement.

Five of the six COSMIC satellites are still operating, but the COSMIC satellites are all past their five-year nominal lifetimes, and the number of radio occultation soundings they produce is expected to decline over the next few years, with a resulting decrease in forecast accuracy.

COSMIC-2 is a planned follow-on mission consisting of two parts:

  • An equatorial constellation of six satellites that will be launched in 2016 and will make a large improvement in hurricane forecasting and space weather, both vital for national defense and civilian applications. 
  • A polar constellation of six satellites that will provide needed radio occultation soundings in the middle and polar latitudes, improving all weather forecasts, including forecasts of tornadoes, winter storms, and hurricanes affecting the U.S. 

Together, the equatorial and polar components of COSMIC-2 will produce more than 10,000 soundings per day, more than five times the number produced by COSMIC. These soundings will be of better quality as well, with more advanced radio occultation receivers and better antennas.

COSMIC-2 is estimated to cost about $420 million total over 10 years, with Taiwan paying about half the costs and the U.S. Air Force and NOAA the other half, an outstanding bargain for the taxpayers of both countries. Many members of the team responsible for the success of COSMIC are involved in COSMIC-2, and most of the U.S. funds for COSMIC-2 are being spent in the private sector and providing private-sector jobs. As with COSMIC, COSMIC-2 data will be freely available to all people and organizations of the world to support the global economy and save lives and property under the open data policies of the United States and the World Meteorological Organization.

Two private companies, PlanetIQ and GeoOptics, have made arguments that they can provide the same data more quickly and cheaper than COSMIC-2, and they have been lobbying Congress to stop the polar launch of COSMIC-2. Unfortunately, rather than presenting credible alternatives based on merit and demonstration of capabilities to launch such satellites, their arguments have been full of vague and often misleading statements. There is absolutely no reason to believe that these companies can produce radio occultation soundings as quickly, effectively and inexpensively as COSMIC-2, and major issues, such as the U.S. policy of free and open data exchange, have been ignored. These companies have had no experience or track record in producing radio occultation data, and the details of how the companies would do this, at what cost, at what risk, and whether the data would be available to all under the U.S. policy of free and open data exchange are murky.

The United States should welcome any source of additional radio occultation data. Studies by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, the leading weather forecasting center in the world, have shown that weather forecasting will continue to improve up to at least 50,000 radio occultation observations globally. Although COSMIC-2 will provide a significant increase from the current 2,000 soundings per day to over 10,000 per day, there is plenty of room for additional soundings, particularly if they can be provided quickly and cheaply. Certainly the private sector should be considered as a provider, but only after a transparent presentation and evaluation of companies’ scientific, technical and business proposals. Now is an especially good time to consider such proposals, both to augment COSMIC-2 and to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach to providing radio occultation data long after COSMIC-2 has been completed.

COSMIC-2, which is already well along in planning and implementation, should be completed with all due haste. It will save lives, protect property and support the economy, all at a tiny fraction of the U.S. satellite budget.
Clifford F. Mass is a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.