The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is looking to international partners, including China and India, as possible sources of critical hurricane forecasting measurements that today are taken by an aging NASA satellite.

NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher
 told the House Science and Technology energy and environment subcommittee during a Feb. 26 hearing that the agency is having
discussions with those Asian space powers
about obtaining ocean-surface wind
data from their planned satellites to
mitigate the
eventual loss of NASA’s Quick Scatterometer, or QuikScat, spacecraft, which is already well past its expected

NOAA already has an agreement in place to receive data from the European Metop
satellites through 2020, said Lautenbacher, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral
. While this information will be useful, it cannot by itself replace QuikScat data
 because the
European spacecraft are
not optimized for measuring wind speed and direction, according to a NOAA official.

QuikScat is dedicated to taking these measurements, which are calculated from radar-based readings of ocean-surface roughness. The Metop
satellites, on the other hand, host
 a variety of instruments, the NOAA official said. Moreover, QuikScat’s sensor is mounted on the bottom of the spacecraft, whereas
 the comparable instrument on the Metop
 satellites is located
 on the side, which constrains coverage and resolution, the official said.

NOAA has
 reached a preliminary agreement with the Indian government to obtain
data from India’s
Oceansat-2 spacecraft, which is expected to launch in late 2008,
the official said. However, the extent to which this data will meet the needs of hurricane forecasters is not clear. In addition,
it may take several years of testing before India is ready to share the data with NOAA, the official said.

also is in the early stages of discussions with China
 about using data from a Chinese
weather satellite
 that may launch in the near future, the NOAA official said. Those
discussions have not reached the point of even preliminary agreements, the official said.

While the international discussions continue, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is wrapping up a study conducted for
NOAA that looks at options for a QuikScat follow-on mission
, the NOAA official said. These options include a
nearly identical replacement
, save for changes required by
parts obsolescence, and
a more advanced satellite, the official said.

also will consider less expensive means of monitoring ocean-surface wind speed and direction,
buoys and aerial sensors, Lautenbacher said during the hearing.

kScat became a political hot-button issue last year after one of NOAA’s top hurricane forecasters was reassigned. Some Democratic lawmakers charged that the move was payback for the official’s public voicing of concerns that NOAA was not making serious plans to replace the aging spacecraft. NOAA disputed those charges, saying it was a matter of job performance.

But QuikScat was not the only issue on the minds of lawmakers during the hearing. For example, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), chairman of the
 energy and environment subcommittee, expressed concern
with NOAA’s ongoing problems developing
 Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, a key sensor on a new generation of
polar-orbiting weather satellites to be operated for civilian and military purposes.

The instrument is intended to monitor cloud formations and other atmospheric and ocean-surface conditions as part of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which is expected to begin launching in 2013. Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor on the effort, which is jointly funded by the U.S. Air Force and NOAA.

The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite is being developed by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif.

Lampson expressed frustration that the instrument is not ready and that recent issues with its circuit boards and a cooling system have delayed the launch of a NASA-funded precursor satellite on which it is to make its first flight.

Lautenbacher acknowledged the difficulty with the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite but said he believes that NOAA can now “see the end of the tunnel.”