COLORADO SPRINGS — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is exploring ways to deal with a proposed cut in future weather satellite programs, including greater use of commercial and international data sources over the long term.

President Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint, released March 16 by the White House Office of Management and Budget, supported the continued development of NOAA’s current weather satellite programs, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES).

However, the document said the administration would seek unspecified “annual savings” from the Polar Follow On program for future polar orbiting satellites after JPSS-2 “by better reflecting the actual risk of a gap in polar satellite coverage.”

Steven Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA Satellite and Information Services, said in an April 3 interview during the 33rd Space Symposium that the agency is studying how to adjust the current program of future satellites to fit within a reduced, flat budget.

“The administration has given us a challenge to manage to a different topline,” he said. “It will require some adjustments of the procurements, the development schedules and the risk posture for the program itself.”

Volz said that NOAA is looking at options beyond simply delaying the later JPSS satellites in order fit the program within the budget. “That’s something you can’t answer in several weeks,” he said, noting that NOAA will need to study how decisions about what to fly, and when, would affect weather-forecasting capabilities.

One option, he said, was greater use of “alternative sources” of weather data. That would include purchases of commercial weather data, something that NOAA is examining now with an ongoing commercial weather data pilot program. NOAA awarded contracts in September to GeoOptics and Spire for GPS radio occultation data.

Those contracts remain open through the end of the month, and NOAA is considering a second round of the program should it receive funding for it in a final fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully it’s a big iceberg of potential sources of commercial data that we can use to supplement and, eventually, potentially replace some of our core mission measurements,” he said. “But that takes time.”

Another option is data from other partners. NOAA already partners with weather agencies in Europe and Japan for the exchange of satellite data, but Volz said the agency was looking at other sources, like the European Commission’s Copernicus program. “They provide very valuable high-quality measurements that we may be able to leverage as well,” he said, adding it would take time and resources to incorporate that data in NOAA’s existing models.

Volz said any greater use of alternative data sources will be a long-term effort. “From my perspective, these things don’t happen quickly,” he said. “We expect this full year, as we submit this budget and work on the next budget, [to examine] how the program could adapt to a different implementation approach, and a different budget.”

Despite the long-term concerns, NOAA’s current programs are going well. Volz said GOES-16, launched last November as the first of the GOES-R series of next-generation geostationary orbit weather satellites, is moving smoothly through its on-orbit check out. He said NOAA is on track to decide in May whether to place GOES-16 at the east or west orbital location for NOAA’s geostationary satellites, and to begin regular operations of it in November.

JPSS-1, meanwhile, is going through testing and remains on schedule for a launch in September. A new ground system that supports JPSS satellites and the older Suomi NPP polar-orbiting weather satellite is “moving along,” he said, with plans to transfer Suomi to the new system in a couple months.

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...