NOAA seeks funding for innovative technologies, novel partnerships


This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service is requesting nearly $17.3 million in 2020 funding for a series of initiatives to explore the potential contributions of new data partnerships, small satellites and advanced technologies.

In the 2020 budget request delivered to Congress in March, NOAA seeks $10 million for industry studies, analyses and possible flight demonstrations of hosted payloads. The agency also is asking Congress for $5 million to purchase Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) radio occultation data for operational use and nearly $2.3 million to work with NASA’s Earth Science and Heliophysics Divisions, other government agencies and the commercial sector to take advantage of emerging technologies, according to NOAA’s 2020 budget summary, known as the Blue Book.

These proposals stem from NOAA’s Satellite Observing System Architecture Study, completed approximately 18 months ago, which looks beyond the current generation of geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites.

“We are thinking of enabling flight pilots and demonstrations, particularly for new kinds of capabilities,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning.

Since NOAA shared the results of its future architecture study in early 2018, the agency has started to “define a small sounder for low Earth orbit” and begun looking at geostationary payloads and deployment options, St. Germain said at the 35th Space Symposium in April.

Steve Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, says the agency’s budget request includes $2.3 million for a Joint Venture Partnership intend to bring in data from satellites flown by NASA and international partners. Credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews
Steve Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, says the agency’s budget request includes $2.3 million for a Joint Venture Partnership intend to bring in data from satellites flown by NASA and international partners. Credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews

NOAA seeks $10 million in 2020 to explore opportunities to send hosted payloads on commercial satellites in various orbits including geostationary and tundra orbit.

“NOAA may also be able to use commercial spacecraft for technology demonstrations to quickly deploy and evaluate the benefit of new instruments to meet mission requirements,” according to the Blue Book.

Rather than issuing requirements for specific sensors, NOAA is interested in learning what commercial technologies could produce reliable data, Neil Jacobs, NOAA assistant commerce secretary for environmental observations and predictions, said in a recent interview.

NOAA is looking to the commercial sector because companies are developing new instruments and also producing instruments that are smaller and require less power than sensors currently flying. “Anytime things get smaller and easier to deploy they’re more appealing,” Jacobs said.

NOAA’s 2020 budget plan also looks beyond the current Commercial Weather Data Pilot program. Under that program, NOAA awarded contracts in 2018 with a combined value of more than $8 million to GeoOptics, PlanetIQ and Spire Global to provide GNSS radio occultation data in the second round of the Commercial Weather Data Pilot. NOAA is requesting $5 million in 2020 to begin purchasing commercial radio occultation data for numerical weather forecasting.

“This request will also support continued development of the infrastructure and capability to securely import, transfer, process, store and use external data from commercial partners for operational use,” according to the Blue Book. The Commercial Weather Data Pilot program will continue but will focus on other datasets, Jacobs said.

NOAA seeks $3 million for the Commercial Weather Data Pilot in 2020 and plans to spend $8 million on the initiative annually from 2021 to 2024, according to the 2020 budget blueprint sent to Congress.

NOAA’s Joint Venture Partnership is a proposed $2.3 million initiative to help NOAA bring in data from research satellites flown by NASA and other partners including the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

“We are trying to set aside the funds to exploit those in a timely fashion; before launch to prepare for them and soon after launch to bring their data into models and assimilate with our other datasets,” said Steve Volz, NOAA Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, said at the Space Symposium.

The proposal is reminiscent of a join NASA-NOAA initiative called the Operational Satellite Improvement Program. Between 1973 and 1981, NASA and NOAA each contributed $15 million a year for technologies including sensors to improve NOAA satellites, Scott Rayder, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research senior adviser to the president and former NOAA chief of staff, said in a recent interview.

Rayder lauded NOAA for its proposed NASA cooperation and hosted payload initiative, which he called “a good start to look at what’s out there in the private sector that could help NOAA accomplish its mission.”

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