GOES-12 captured this visible image of Hurricane Katrina on August 28, 2005. Credit: NOAA

WASHINGTON — A July 14 hearing revealed House Democrats and Republicans are split on the long-term viability of using commercially collected satellite data in U.S. weather forecasting models, despite the recent passage of a bipartisan bill that would mandate a commercial weather data pilot program.

The point of partisan contention turns on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s strict interpretation of its obligation to share global weather data it collects with international partners.

While NOAA has been generally supportive of testing the GPS radio occultation and hyperspectral sounding data a spate of proposed commercial constellation would collect, the agency has fretted that international obligations to share data might conflict with the motives of profit-seeking satellite companies.

Manson Brown, NOAA’s deputy administrator, told the House Science environment subcommittee the U.S. has an obligation to freely share global weather data it gets from satellites under the 20 year-old World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 — an obligation that is “not open to interpretation or debate,” Brown said. The World Meteorological Organization is part of the United Nations.

Brown’s testimony left Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore.), the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, wondering whether the weather agency would have to pay its international partners’ share of the bill if commercial weather-data buys became de rigueur in the U.S. and vendors refused to let NOAA share the data for free.

“If NOAA maintains its policy of free and unrestricted use of data it purchases, will it be forced to purchase data at a premium, or serve as an anchor buyer, that will outweigh the anticipated cost savings?” Bonamici asked during the hearing.

Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore) speaking on the House floor during the June 2 debate of the chamber's 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill. Credit: SpaceNews screen capture of C-Span video
Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore) speaking on the House floor. Credit: SpaceNews screen capture of C-Span video

Bonamici, cosponsor of the latest bill that would require NOAA to test out a commercial satellite data, insisted the U.S. must “ensure existing policies that maintain free and open access to essential weather data are not altered.”

On the other hand, the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), insisted “that our international obligations are much more nuanced” than the Brown said, and NOAA’s rigid legal interpretation could be bad for business and forecasts alike.

“I am concerned that a viable commercial weather industry will face challenges to mature under NOAA’s current interpretation of our international obligations regarding access to data,” Bridenstine said. “It could prevent markets from forming, thwart innovation, reduce the quantity of data available, perpetuate the existing government monopoly and cause costs to balloon. In short, this policy could work against our ability to predict timely and accurate weather events.”

Bridenstine and Bonamici cooperated on the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1561), which the House passed in May. The bill authorizes appropriations of $9 million in 2016 for a three-step NOAA pilot program that would require the agency to publish standards for commercial data buys by Dec. 31, do a pilot data buy from at least one such provider by Oct. 31, 2016, and report back to Congress on how the experiment went by Oct. 1, 2019.

Bridenstine said the Senate Commerce, Science, Transportation committee had received the House’s bill, and lawmakers in the upper chamber have shown “interest in weather legislation.” However, the Senate had not scheduled so much as a commercial weather hearing at press time on July 17.

NOAA officials met with executives with aspiring commercial weather companies in Greenbelt, Maryland, in April during the annual NOAA Satellite Conference to discuss government standards for commercial data buys. Brown testified July 14 that those meetings were fruitful, and NOAA is now working “aggressively” to publish data-buy standards by the end of the year.

Aspiring commercial weather satellite companies including Tempus Global Data of Ogden, Utah; PlanetiQ, of Bethesda, Maryland; and GeoOptics of Pasadena, California; and San Francisco-based Spire all support NOAA’s pilot data buy program. At the same time, each company insists it does not need any U.S. government business to survive.

To date, none of these companies have launched operational weather satellites.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.