GPS radio occultation
GPS radio occultation data, which can refine weather forecast models, is the subject of a second round of a NOAA commercial weather data pilot program. Credit: UCAR

WASHINGTON — The new acting administrator of NOAA and the retiring head of NASA’s Earth sciences division praised the potential of commercial satellite data purchases to augment their own satellite systems.

At a Feb. 26 hearing of the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on climate change, Neil Jacobs, the assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, and Michael Freilich, the director of NASA’s Earth sciences division, said they expected pilot programs underway at their agencies to buy commercial data to evolve into full-fledged data buy programs in the near future.

“The cubesat industry is just now, I believe, starting to take off, and the data that they’re providing, particularly with the GPS radio occultation data, is incredibly valued,” said Jacobs.

NOAA is currently in the second round of its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program, with contracts awarded in September 2018 to GeoOptics, PlanetIQ and Spire. Those companies are providing GPS radio occultation data, measuring the refraction of GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere and are received by the companies’ satellites, which can provide temperature and pressure profiles to support weather forecasting models.

Jacobs said the commercial satellites have provided data “as good as what we would get from COSMIC data,” he said, a reference to the set of Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate satellites developed jointly by the U.S. and Taiwan that also collect GPS radio occultation data. The first round of the pilot program, using contracts awarded in 2016 to GeoOptics and Spire, had concluded that the data fell short of expectations.

He said he wants to eventually buy commercial weather data “as a subscription service” that he says is cost effective because NOAA would be just one of many potential customers for the service. He didn’t address concerns in the industry like World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40, which obligates countries to freely share weather data with one another. Companies worry that that this could mean weather data purchased by NOAA would then be shared with other nations, limiting demand.

NASA started its own commercial data buy program, announcing in August plans to purchase Earth science data from DigitalGlobe, Planet and Spire. Those contracts, which include a one-year initial contract and options to extend them for four years, have a total value of $7 million per company. DigitalGlobe and Planet are providing imagery, while Spire is delivering GPS radio occultation data.

“We’re basically purchasing their data and evaluating its contributions and its value to advance our research agenda,” said Freilich. “We’re not imposing requirements on them.”

Those initial contracts are intended to determine if the data they provide is valuable enough to NASA to engage in long-term contracts, and Freilich suggested that is indeed the case. “We’re saying that since you have it, we will buy it and evaluate how useful it is, and then go in for a long-term contract if, indeed, it is useful, and we’re finding it to be,” he said.

Frelich made a similar statement in his opening remarks. “After evaluations, we plan to pursue long-term data buy contracts, benefiting both the government and the private sector,” he said.

The discussions on commercial data purchases were a small part of a nearly two-hour hearing on the broader topic of climate change, where both Freilich and Jacobs emphasized the value of the work their agencies did studying climate and stood behind reports like the National Climate Assessment, which evaluated the various effects the changing climate has on the country.

The hearing also came at a crossroads for the two agencies. A day before the hearing, the Commerce Department announced it was naming Jacobs as the acting administrator of NOAA, replacing Timothy Gallaudet, who will retain his formal position of assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

Jacobs said in an internal memo that the change would allow Gallaudet to focus more time on maritime issues, although there was no formal public announcement of the change and the reasons behind it. While several members of the committee congratulated Jacobs for becoming acting administrator, he did not discuss his new position at the hearing.

NOAA has been without an administrator since the beginning of the Trump administration more than two years ago. Barry Myers, nominated for the position in October 2017 and again in January, has yet to have his nomination taken up by the full Senate, with some members expressing concerns about conflicts of interest from his time as chief executive of AccuWeather.

Freilich’s testimony was one of his last duties as head of the Earth sciences division at NASA before his retirement from the agency. NASA announced in August that Freilich would leave the agency in February after leading the division since 2006. The agency is currently searching for a new director.

At one point in the hearing, a member asked Freilich if he would agree to meet with a group to assess what data NASA could provide about the Great Lakes region. “I’m sure that NASA would be happy to do that,” he replied, “but in three days I will be retired.”

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...