Lawmakers Knock NOAA’s Draft Commercial Space Policy

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WASHINGTON — Two U.S. lawmakers in key space oversight positions blasted the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for fighting a rear guard battle against companies seeking to commercialize satellite-based weather data products.

In a Sept. 23 letter to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) complained that the agency has yet to draft data standards that it says these companies must meet before they can sell to the government. Smith and Bridenstine chair the House Science Committee and House Science environment subcommittee, respectively.

A draft Commercial Space Policy released by NOAA Sept. 1 amounts to a catch-22 for the nascent commercial weather industry, according to the letter. The policy “states that private companies’ data must meet certain ‘quality standards.’ However, NOAA has yet to make any such standards publicly available.”

Moreover, the letter says, “the responsibilities of the Agency, outlined in the draft policy, may become burdensome, making commercial acquisitions unnecessarily complex.” The draft policy amounts to a dodge that “provides NOAA cover to continue to avoid commercial options” for acquiring needed satellite data, they said.

The letter demands that NOAA turn over, by Oct. 7, copies of any agency documents and communications related to the formulation of the draft Commercial Space policy.

“NOAA is currently receiving public comment on its draft Commercial Space Policy that establishes the broad principles for the use of commercial space-based approaches for NOAA’s observational requirements,” NOAA spokesman John Leslie wrote in a Sept. 24 email. “Additionally, NOAA Satellites (NESDIS) will soon release its process for engaging with the commercial sector and will ask for public comment.  NOAA appreciates the importance of establishing a thoughtful and well coordinated commercial engagement policy and process.”

NOAA officials have said they hope to finalize the Commercial Space Policy by the end of the year — something pending bipartisan legislation known as the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act of 2015 (H.R. 1561) would require it to do. The bill would require NOAA to establish commercial data standards.

But prospects for passing the bill, an updated version of previous legislation that floundered before coming to a vote, are uncetain as the federal government lurches toward a possible second shutdown in three years.

Aspiring commercial weather satellite operators in the U.S. — none of whom have launched any operational satellites yet — have for years lobbied NOAA and Congress to create some means of selling commercial weather data to the government.  Some lawmakers have become receptive to the call amid cost overruns and delays in NOAA’s flagship weather satellite programs.

U.S. weather forecasts use data from NOAA satellites in polar and geostationary orbits, and from satellites operated by other countries. Under the 20 year-old World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40, NOAA and other signatories freely share global weather data among themselves; no one country operates enough satellites to maintain global weather coverage 24 hours a day.

In a potential impediment to commercial data buys, NOAA officials have said — and the agency’s draft Commercial Space Policy repeated — there is no getting around this obligation.

House lawmakers, who have generally worked across the aisle to promote commercial weather data in Congress, fell into partisan camps over the data-sharing issue in a July hearing of the House Science environment subcommittee.

Bridenstine worried that commercial companies might not want to sell data to NOAA if the agency then turns around and shares that data for free. Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, worried the cost of commercial buys might spiral out of control if NOAA had to shoulder its international partners’ share of the bill.

NOAA’s draft Commercial Space Policy is open for public comment through Oct. 1.

Aspiring commercial weather satellite operators fall into two primary categories: Those proposing GPS radio occultation satellites, and those proposing hyperspectral sounding satellites.

GPS radio occultation refers to measuring distortion of GPS signals as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere. From the signal distortion, satellite operators can infer temperature and moisture conditions at different altitudes. Companies that have proposed GPS radio occultation satellites include: GeoOptics, Pasadena, California; PlanetIQ, Bethesda, Maryland; and Spire, San Francisco.

Spire is closest of the three to launching its proposed constellation. The company plans to loft 20 three-unit cubesats equipped with GPS radio occultation sensors as piggyback payloads on various rockets by the end of the year.

Hyperspectral sounding instruments make finer distinctions between the features of different objects they observe from space than can multispectral instruments such as those flying aboard Suomi NPP, the NOAA polar orbiter that launched in 2011. Tempus Global Data of Ogden, Utah, has proposed flying a hyperspectral sounder it licensed from Utah State University as a hosted payload aboard a geostationary satellite.