Congress Pushes for U.S. Government Use of Commercial Satellites to Gather Weather Data

An Oklahoma Congressman is urging the U.S. government to outsource the collection of certain weather data to commercial satellite operators, the same model currently used by the Department of Defense (DoD) for global satellite communications. In a recent speech given to the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WBSR), Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) said using commercial data would improve weather forecasting and make the network of weather satellites more resilient.

“We need to move from the government owning and operating huge satellites to a day when the government can purchase data from private satellite operators,” Bridenstine told industry representatives at the WSBR luncheon. “The historic government monopoly of weather satellites, and associated data, is now at the point of creating unnecessary costs, delays and risks that could dramatically degrade U.S. weather forecasting.”

Bridenstine’s speech centered around the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and his desire to see NOAA’s use of commercial weather data to mitigate risk of pending weather data gaps. NOAA’s weather satellites are aging and one of their critical polar operational environmental satellites (POES) is nearing the end of its lifespan.

The agency hopes to address this challenge by launching new, next generation spacecraft. However, this project, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 (JPSS 1), has fallen behind schedule. According to a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), this could result in the U.S. having insufficient polar satellite data to accurately predict severe weather events. This data gap could range from 17 to 53 months, according to the report.

Bridenstine has introduced a bill, the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014, which takes several steps to mitigate this near-term data gap. The Bill, passed by the House and awaiting action in the Senate, calls on NOAA to explore purchasing commercial data and to incorporate such purchases into the standard operating procedures of the agency. The bill also requires NOAA to make funds available for non-federal weather researchers through competitive grants, contracts and cooperative agreements.

“Going forward, NOAA should adopt Department of Defense principles that include the disaggregation of space for the purpose of resiliency,” Bridenstine said. ”That’s the model that NOAA should adopt. It’s the same model that we’ve seen be successful in the Department of Defense as it relates to imagery and communications.”

We welcome Congressman Bridenstine’s willingness to embrace innovative new approaches to challenges in space. Whether in weather services, remote sensing, space situational awareness, and especially satellite communications, commercial capabilities offer a tremendous value as well as resilience, information assurance, and capability.  In the current budgetary climate, government and industry must work collaboratively to find new approaches that can efficiently maintain and upgrade U.S. space architectures.

Regarding weather, the GAO report put both parties on notice regarding the coming data gap. Similar short-falls can be made to other mission areas as well.  Representative Bridenstine is right:  let’s further our cooperation now in the best interests of the public.

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