A stack of programs await attendees of the American Meteorological Society's 98th annual meeting in Austin, Texas. Credit: AMS via Flickr

AUSTIN, Texas — As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looks ahead, the agency sees great promise in the observation capabilities of small satellite constellations but also significant challenges in terms of buying, validating and using the various types of data they provide.

“There is an unprecedented opportunity to expand the number and types and diversity of observations we can bring in but we will have to think about different ways of doing business,” said Karen St. Germain, systems architecture and advanced planning director for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.

NOAA's Karen St. Germain. Credit: NOAA NESDIS
NOAA’s Karen St. Germain. Credit: NOAA NESDIS
NOAA’s Karen St. Germain. Credit: NOAA NESDIS

NOAA is concerned, for example, about whether data products from small satellite constellations will be available over the long-term and if so, whether prices will remain stable or fluctuate over time. “How should we budget for that?” St. Germain asked Jan. 8 during an American Meteorological Society conference panel here on NASA and NOAA’s use of commercial weather and Earth science data.

If space-based data providers come and go, and if satellites in those providers’ constellations change frequently, NOAA also will have to change the way it calibrates and validates data products. Historically, the agency has paid careful attention to each sensor from its pre-launch characterization through post-launch testing, calibration, validation and throughout its lifetime. “This process does not necessarily scale well,” St. Germain said.

Another significant challenge NOAA faces is in buying commercial satellite data while maintaining its commitment to sharing data freely with international partners, customers and researchers.

“NOAA is committed to that principle of free and open data sharing,” St. Germain said. “We will share data in real time with our operational partners around the world.”

Through its Commercial Weather Data Pilot program, NOAA is investigating the merits of small satellite data. The agency began by purchasing GPS radio occultation data and is in the early planning stages of a similar effort to purchase microwave sounding data and in the “pre-planning stage” of buying infrared radiometry data.

“NOAA is looking to normalize the way we think about small satellite capabilities,” St. Germain said. “Small satellites are another tool in the tool chest that we might consider using to meet our operational requirements.”

Through NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot program and NASA’s experimental small satellite programs, NOAA has observed that in general small satellites are not as reliable as larger flagship systems. Small satellites launch more frequently and come to the end of their operational lives more quickly than larger satellites.

That means the small satellites require more attention on an ongoing basis than large spacecraft, which would place additional demands on NOAA ground systems, operations and calibration-validation teams, St. Germain said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...