In the majesty of the night sky, a satellite can look like a shooting star to the untrained eye; however, a shooting star (which is actually a meteor) will take less than a fraction of a second to pass, while a satellite will take several minutes. While some people may wish on a “star,” legislators, military experts, and scientists are wishing for additional and more accurate satellites for weather forecasting.
Weather’s direct impact on the minutia of each American’s everyday life, as well as its effect on defense operations, transportation, and national preparedness during extreme events, has made it a frequently addressed topic on Capitol Hill during the 114th Congress.
The Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing to examine current and future U.S. weather satellite systems, as well as the partnerships that facilitate accurate and timely forecasting. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently funds most of the weather-sensing satellites in earth’s orbit, both those in geosynchronous orbit and the polar orbiting satellites that cross the equator 14 times each day. The data generated by these pricey satellites is fed into weather models that are also under NOAA’s vast umbrella, which includes the National Weather Service. Since several existing satellites will soon be reaching the end of their expected efficacy, new satellites have been commissioned, but gaps in coverage are anticipated. Concerns about these gaps have been exacerbated due to the recent failure of the NOAA-16 satellite. The fates of existing NOAA satellites and the capabilities of future ones are still being called into question and comprised much of the committee members’ line of questioning. Full committee Chairman Lamar Smith (TX-21) accused the agency of dragging its feet instead of doing “all it can to prevent data gaps.” NOAA’s Assistant Administrator, Dr. Stephen Volz (National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services; NOAA), assured the subcommittee that “the lesson [of NOAA-16] was learned [by his agency], and it has been applied on our [Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)] program,” which will launch its first satellite in 2017. Full committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30) supported the efforts of NOAA’s weather forecasting but also agreed that NOAA satellite systems leave room for improvement, stressing “We must take all necessary steps to ensure that there is not a gap in satellite coverage in support of our weather forecasting capabilities.”
The wide array of ongoing satellite weather program activities and the details of planned launches of new NOAA satellites were described by Dr. Volz and the other witnesses, Mr. David Powner (Director, Information Technology Management Issues), Mr. Ralph Stoffler (Director of Weather, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, U.S. Air Force), and Ms. Cristina Chaplain (Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office). An exciting new satellite, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership, was launched in 2011 and has a design life of five years, although it may well continue to provide reliable data beyond that period. As a result of the collaborative program between NOAA and NASA, polar orbiting satellite JPSS-1 will be launched in early 2017, followed by similarly-outfitted JPSS-2. The next two requested satellites, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, have not yet been funded by the government, but NOAA hopes they will be launched in 2026 and 2031, respectively.
Dr. Volz also noted the strengths of collaborations that currently allow our civilian and military weather predictions to be effective. Speaking from a military perspective, Mr. Stoffler noted the positive inter-agency interactions between defense and NOAA, wherein military satellite information works in tandem with NOAA-generated weather forecasts to help plan overseas operations. NOAA also collaborates internationally and is utilizing an agreement with vetted, high-quality European and Japanese data sources to supplement its satellite systems, particularly over the Indian Ocean. Another mechanism for increasing NOAA’s data stream would be to purchase weather data from private companies, which has been discussed in Congress. NOAA is moving forward with a novel pilot program designed to determine how much private data is available, whether it is of sufficient quality, and whether it can be helpful for NOAA’s weather forecasting model inputs. In particular, Dr. Volz described the pilot program as proceeding at a “break-neck speed,” offering hope for even better weather predictions in the near future. Weather forecasting is considered a public good and is critical for national defense, so it is hoped that NOAA and its partners can continue to provide the most up to date and accurate forecasts possible in the years to come.