Profile | Thomas Bogdan
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

A Two-CAR Family

In the alphabet soup of the space industry, one of the most confusing pairs of acronyms is NCAR and UCAR. NCAR is the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a center funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) devoted to atmospheric sciences. UCAR is the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of more than 100 universities that has managed NCAR for the NSF since the center’s inception in 1960. Given their ties, and their similar names, it’s not uncommon for people to confuse one with the other.

Thomas Bogdan, president of UCAR, takes it in stride. “We’re a two-CAR family,” he jokes. Bogdan earned a doctorate in plasma astrophysics from the University of Chicago in 1984 and joined UCAR the following year, studying solar-terrestrial physics at NCAR. He returned to UCAR as president in 2012 after serving as director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center the previous six years.

At UCAR, Bogdan is a leading advocate for a satellite system called the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), a joint project of the United States and Taiwan. The six-satellite system, launched in 2006, monitors signals from GPS satellites as those signals pass through the atmosphere. Data from COSMIC are used to both monitor space weather conditions and improve forecasts of terrestrial weather.

COSMIC's low-Earth-orbiting satellites. Credit: Orbital Sciences
COSMIC’s low-Earth-orbiting satellites. Credit: Orbital Sciences
COSMIC’s low-Earth-orbiting satellites. Credit: Orbital Sciences

With the original COSMIC system aging, the United States and Taiwan have been developing a follow-on system, called COSMIC-2. An initial set of six satellites is scheduled to launch into an equatorial orbit in 2016, with a second set of six launching in 2018 into the same high-inclination orbit used by the original COSMIC satellites.

Given COSMIC’s utility in both space and terrestrial weather, COSMIC-2 would seem like an easy sell. However, the program has run into criticism, putting Bogdan on the defensive. Last year, Bogdan co-authored a Washington Post op-ed supporting COSMIC-2 after Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) dismissed it as “nice to have” but not essential during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. COSMIC-2 has also faced opposition from companies like PlanetiQ that are planning their own GPS radio occultation constellations, arguing that a commercial data purchase is more cost-effective.

Bogdan recently visited SpaceNews’ offices to discuss NCAR, UCAR and COSMIC-2.

How big is UCAR?
We have 105 universities that are members of UCAR: three in Canada and 102 in the United States. UCAR has about 400 employees today. UCAR is the organization that helps to take the basic research that’s being done at NCAR and, to some extent, the member universities, and look for ways to move that into application-oriented activities and, finally, into the marketplace.

Is UCAR’s agreement to operate NCAR competed?
Yes. It was openly competed about seven years ago, before my time. We had an option for renewal the last go-around. Because of the analysis NSF did of how well we were doing, the Science Board decided to offer us a renewal option. That runs to Sept. 30, 2018. It’s our anticipation that in 2018 the cooperative agreement will be recompeted in an open solicitation.

What space-related research has NCAR been involved with?
In the past, the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) was involved with the Solar Maximum Mission and the Apollo Telescope Mount on Skylab. Both had instrumentation developed through HAO and Ball Aerospace. We have generally worked with groups in creating instrumentation for research, generally on the NASA side. Today, COSMIC is a big part of what we’re doing. We bring models to bear on space data. An exciting niche for us is that NASA missions create a great amount of data about the variability of our planet. We ensure that it’s used in state-of-the-art weather and climate and models. We see ourselves as more of an integrator between the people who do the hardware and collect the data, and how it actually gets used to increase our knowledge and understanding of weather, climate, air quality and things like that.

What is your role in COSMIC?
We partner with NOAA and the Taiwanese, and also with the Department of Defense, in doing processing of data that comes in from the COSMIC-1 mission. We then move that data out to the National Weather Service, which distributes that. Taiwan has the operations for those spacecraft. On COSMIC-2, we’re working to create the software that will analyze those data. COSMIC-2 has much greater capabilities than COSMIC-1, including better signal to noise and the ability to look deeper into the atmosphere.

Will the COSMIC-2 spacecraft launch before the COSMIC-1 spacecraft reach the end of their lives?
We’re going to launch COSMIC-2 in 2016. We have five of the COSMIC-1 spacecraft currently working. We had four at one point but we managed to bring one of them back. It’s my hope that we’ll have overlap between the two. The first launch for COSMIC-2 will be into an equatorial orbit, with a big space weather component. COSMIC-1 is in a higher-inclination orbit, so they’re very complementary in that regard. The second launch of COSMIC-2 will go into that higher-inclination orbit and allow COSMIC-1 to exit.

Two sets of graphics, comparing COSMIC-1 coverage (top, Formosat-3) to COSMIC-2 (Formosat-7) coverage. Credit: National Space Organization (Taiwan)

What is the status of COSMIC-2?
We do have a program of record now in NOAA. Money was set out in the 2014 and 2015 budgets. Although we have no idea what the administration is proposing for 2016, our sense is that there should be good numbers for COSMIC-2 in the NOAA budget.

What helped win support for COSMIC-2?
In my mind, it was two things. First of all, the articulation of the value of GPS radio occultation data has done to improve the forecast, particularly six to eight days out. There’s a dramatic improvement from having global synoptic information over places like the ocean, the Arctic and the Antarctic, where data is generally limited.

The second part is that we have strong support from the Taiwanese, and that makes this a very economical mission as far as overall costs go. The actual benefit per dollar spent is very high on COSMIC.

Why is Taiwan involved in COSMIC?
A couple of things come together for Taiwan. One, they are very interested in advancing technologically. Also, they get hit by typhoons a lot, and their interest is in improving their forecasting capacity.

What are the advantages of GPS radio occultation?
In GPS occultation, you watch a GPS satellite set below the horizon, and do a timing experiment to see how long it takes for that signal to get to you. As the satellite sets, the time takes longer and longer as you traverse more of the atmosphere. The signal is slowed down by electrons in the atmosphere, which is why we can use COSMIC to study space weather. The humidity and the temperature of the atmosphere also contribute to the delay. We can look at all of the GPS satellites — COSMIC-2 will be able to look at Glonass and Galileo as well — and it gives you the line-of-sight integrated average at various altitudes in the atmosphere over all kinds of places on the globe. Taking an image in the infrared, for example, doesn’t give you that structure. Ground-based sondes are helpful in providing vertical resolution, but they’re not in the Antarctic or the oceans. Space weather is the largest single source in using GPS for positioning. On quiet days, you might be looking at a couple feet of error from the single going through the ionosphere. But if you have a space weather event, you have errors of as much as half a football field. We take COSMIC-1 data and use it in various models of the ionosphere. Those data have been used by the Air Force Weather Agency.

Is the Air Force driving interest in this?
You’d have to ask the Air Force, but certainly GPS is a big issue for the Department of Defense, and it’s where they pay a lot of attention about space weather.

Does COSMIC-2 have the ability to improve the accuracy of GPS?
Yes, absolutely. Knowing how to correct for the ionosphere can help a lot.

Can you quantify the value of COSMIC data for meteorology?
There was a very interesting study done by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. What the report does is look at all the different sources of data that go into the forecasts and perform data denial experiments to see what happens when data is taken out. COSMIC is the third-most-important data that goes into their forecasts. It’s interesting that it’s No. 3 even though its cost is a lot less than some of the other things.

Would it be better for the government to simply buy the data commercially?
I think it depends on the price. There’s a certain baseline cost in getting these data, and that cost has to be borne by someone, and in the end it would have to be the taxpayer. There’s also an issue about the availability of the data: How many times can you sell that data? Our general rule in the meteorological community has been free and open access to data. If a private company needs to get their return on investment and make a profit, and they can only sell it once to an organization that will then share it to the rest of the world, that organization needs to, in some sense, bear the full cost.

What’s your relationship with companies like PlanetiQ that would prefer a commercial data buy over COSMIC-2?
I’m focused on making the case for why GPS radio occultation is important. In that regard, I think PlanetiQ and UCAR are on the same page. I look at the COSMIC-2 opportunity and think it is a good investment. I’m very encouraging to PlanetiQ to continue on with future investment. The second COSMIC-2 launch is not the end of GPS radio occultation. I don’t see any further involvement with Taiwan further down the line.

What’s your opinion on the status of the commercial weather industry?
It’s certainly growing. There is a lot of interest everywhere in commercial data buys, and we need to take that very seriously. GPS radio occultation is set up nicely for that because they’re fairly low-cost, low-energy sensors that can ride on anything and don’t have to be in a special orbit. In many ways, they may prove to be a very good entrée for commercial data buys. I’m totally supportive of all the groups out there doing it. There’s no question in my mind that commercial data buys are a good idea. We need to move along that direction. The more opportunities for the community to secure critical data, the better our options. If there was not $100 million from Taiwan on the table to make this a very cost-effective investment for the U.S. taxpayer, then I think we would not be pushing COSMIC-2. That’s really the game changer in this budgetary environment.

What is UCAR’s future in this area after COSMIC-2?
We are involved in the research business. We are not involved in the operations business. We still see a lot of very valuable research in GPS radio occultation, so that’s why we’re working on COSMIC-2. If someone made the case there was a strong research angle in a future GPS radio occultation mission, then we would be open to participating. But if it’s merely an operational mission, using standard technologies out there, that’s not in our bailiwick. We have no plans for a COSMIC-3.


Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...