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 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is soliciting proposals for a second round of a commercial satellite weather data pilot program even as it wraps up the evaluation of the first round.

NOAA issued a request for proposals (RFP) April 25 for its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program. As with the first round of the program, NOAA is seeking GPS radio occultation data from satellites that can be used to support weather forecasting models.

The second round of the program features a number of changes from the first round to increase the amount of data provided and other details. Winning companies will have to provide at least two periods of data spanning three consecutive months, with a minimum of 500 atmospheric soundings per day.

The contracts will require companies to provide data on at least a weekly basis and follow specific protocols for the secure delivery of data. NOAA also reserves the right to share data provided by the companies with unspecified third parties, although in those cases that access will be limited to work directly related to the Commercial Weather Data Pilot project and not more general applications.

NOAA had planned to issue the request for proposals for the second round of the program last year but decided last fall to postpone the release in order to give the agency more time to analyze the results of the first round of the program and incorporate those lessons into the second round.

“We’re trying to roll everything that we learned from pilot number one into pilot number two,” Karen St. Germain, director of the Office of System Architecture and Advanced Planning at NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, said at an October meeting of the Space Studies Board’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications. At that time, she said, she expected the RFP to be released in the third quarter of fiscal year 2018, which began in April.

In round one of the pilot project, NOAA issued contracts in September 2016 to GeoOptics and Spire for GPS radio occultation data. However, GeoOptics’ contract was terminated when the company was unable to provide data because of delays in the launch of its first satellites.

While Spire did provide data, NOAA officials said later that the quality of the data fell short of expectations. “We have gone through one contract already with the radio occultation community, and we found that the data aren’t accurate enough or comprehensive enough yet to meet our observing requirements,” Stephen Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said in January. Spire said that the data from its constellation of cubesats has improved significantly since the end of that initial round of the pilot program in April 2017.

NOAA officials have said for several months that they are working on a report analyzing the results of that first round of the Commercial Weather Data Pilot. However, NOAA spokesman John Leslie said May 7 that the report is still “nearing competition” within the agency and will be released publicly once it is completed.

Proposals for this second round are due to NOAA May 25. The period of performance on the contracts will run from Aug. 27 through the end of September 2019, although companies will make their final data deliveries to NOAA by the end of June 2019.

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...