WASHINGTON — Despite the enthusiasm for commercial satellite weather systems expressed by a key member of Congress, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said March 16 she has yet to see proof that such systems can provide data that will be useful for weather forecasting.

At a hearing of the environment subcommittee of the House Science Committee on NOAA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said it was still too soon to determine if commercial sources of weather data, most notably GPS radio occultation systems, could augment or replace existing data sources.

“In the weather domain, we believe it is a promising but still quite nascent prospect to actually have data flows from private sector satellites,” Sullivan said. “There have been a number of claims, there’s some hardware in orbit from at least one company that I’m aware of, but really nothing proven to the level that we require for ingesting something into the National Weather Service.”

Several companies, including GeoOptics, PlanetiQ and Spire, have announced plans to deploy constellations of dozens to hundreds of small satellites to collect GPS radio occultation data. Spire launched its first four operational satellites last September.

NOAA currently uses GPS radio occultation data from a U.S.-Taiwanese constellation of satellites known as Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) to augment data from other weather satellites. A follow-on system, known as COSMIC-2, is under development, and Sullivan suggested that it remains the preferred source for such data.

“We’ve kept the door open to possibly going with the government solution, the COSMIC solution, for the simple reason that, as I sit here today, that is a technically proven, known system,” she said. “That is a bird in the hand that we know the quality and characteristics of.”

Later in the hearing, Sullivan urged members to avoid rushing into any decisions about the use of commercial data. “Let’s make sure we have our hand firmly on a real replacement that we know brings the same or better value before we let go of this one,” she said.

NOAA is taking steps to make use of commercial satellite weather data. The agency’s budget request includes additional funding for its Office of Space Commerce, which will serve as a “single point of entry” for companies interesting in selling data to the government. The budget request also includes $5 million for a pilot commercial weather data program.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading advocate for greater use of commercial weather data in Congress, praised NOAA at the hearing for those initiatives. However, he also criticized the agency for delaying the release of a “process guide” that would provide more details about how NOAA would acquire data and its quality requirements.

“It is in final review within NOAA,” Sullivan said of the process guide, which was due to be released in January or February. She didn’t offer a specific date of when NOAA would release the document.

Bridenstine also questioned Sullivan about the sharing of commercial weather data. Under NOAA’s interpretation of World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Resolution 40, the agency believes it would be obligated to freely share commercially-purchased data with other nations, which companies fear would deprive them of additional customers.

“There is a burgeoning weather satellite industry sitting on the sidelines because they are concerned if they sell data to NOAA, you will turn it around and give it away for free, which completely destroys the marketplace before it begins,” Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine asked Sullivan to develop rules for the sharing of such data “that does not undercut the emergence of a market” while still maintaining its obligations under the WMO resolution. Sullivan said she has been in discussions with Bridenstine’s staff as well as the WMO itself on the issue.

Sullivan also said the agency’s larger weather satellite programs, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), have overcome earlier cost and schedule problems. That, she added, gives NOAA confidence about its Polar Follow-On (PFO) satellite program.

“Both the GOES-R and JPSS programs have been running on time and on budget, and are holding their margins,” she said. “The programs are sound, they are stable, and we have now the management capacity and program plans in place for me to be confident that we will execute well on PFO.”

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...