Weather Sats Just a Blip on Senate Commerce Committee’s Radar

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WASHINGTON — NOAA’s $2.4 billion weather satellite portfolio got only a fleeting, if supportive, mention from Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker in a March 3 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The White House’s 2016 request for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Commerce Department, will “fully fund the next generation of weather and environmental satellites,” Pritzker said in her opening statement.

Pritzker also hammered home an oft-repeated refrain that full funding is crucial to preventing a possible gap in global weather coverage around 2017. NOAA’s current polar-orbiting weather satellite, launched in late 2011, was designed for a five-year mission. Its successor may not launch until March 31, 2017.

“Funding the development and launch of future satellites is absolutely critical to reduce the risk of a potential gap in weather data,” Pritzker told Senators including the new Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

Pritzker spoke in the first of two hearings scheduled for March 3 on the Commerce Department’s 2016 budget request. The next, and likely more granular, is scheduled for 2 p.m., when Pritzker will appear before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee.

NOAA’s Satellite Information Service designs and operates U.S. civilian weather satellites, which NASA procures using NOAA funds. The agencies currently are developing next-generation polar- and geostationary-orbiting weather satellite systems.

These programs have provided a rare example of bipartisan and bicameral cooperation over the past several appropriations cycles. Congress spared the U.S. civilian weather satellite fleet from the worst of the sequestration budget cuts that hit the federal government in 2013, and the programs were funded at the requested levels in subsequent budget laws.

But satellites were lost in the shuffle March 3 as lawmakers prodded Pritzker and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx about other parts of their departments’ wide-ranging portfolios.

Sen. Maria Cantwell
Sen. Maria Cantwell. Credit: U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Only Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), standing in for flu-stricken ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), came close to touching on the weather satellite enterprise.

Cantwell, like Republicans and Democrats in both chambers, is worried about the perception that NOAA’s predictive weather models are not as good as Europe’s. These models, so complex they require supercomputers to create, depend on data from both space- and ground-based sensors.

“We shouldn’t depend on the Europeans for the best data about what the effects of a storm are,” Cantwell said. “If we need supercomputing time and more digital analysis, let’s get that.”

There was no mention during the hearing of last year’s cyberattack, which U.S. officials believe originated in China, that temporarily interrupted the flow of NOAA satellite data to these models.