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Two days after three Senators introduced a bill to spur space weather research and forecasting, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a boost for NOAA's space weather satellite program and endorsed its plans to build two new satellites over the next several years. The action came as part of the committee's markup of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (S. 2837).
NOAA is responsible for building and operating satellites that monitor Earth's weather and space weather. Space weather is caused by particles ejected from the Sun that hit Earth's atmosphere and can damage satellites and terrestrial infrastructure such as the electric grid. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point to give advance warning of solar eruptions, but two of the three are quite old. NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) was launched in 1997 and ESA's Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) in 1995. A newer satellite, the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), was launched last year, but only SOHO has a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption. The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that allow NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO to issue forecasts and alerts.
Concern about the potential impacts of space weather has been growing since they were highlighted in a 2008 National Research Council report. In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.
Congress seems to be getting the message. Last year NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for a follow-on to DSCOVR and Congress cut that in half, appropriating just $1.2 million. By contrast, this year the request is also $2.5 million, but Senate appropriators tripled it to $7.5 million.
Perhaps more significantly, the committee endorsed NOAA's plan to increase funding sharply in the coming years to pay for two space weather satellites, two launch vehicles, and two sets of sensors (solar wind instruments and compact coronagraphs). The goal is to have one satellite ready to replace DSCOVR at the end of its projected mission life in FY2022. In its FY2017 budget request, NOAA presented a projected funding profile to accomplish that plan: FY2018, $53.7 million; FY2019, $186.1 million; FY2020, $154.5 million; and FY2021, $81.5 million. In its report on the CJS bill, the committee directs NOAA "to maintain the multi-year funding profile and schedule" and use the additional money provided for FY2017 "to accelerate the development of advanced technologies and an architecture study for a series of space weather follow-on flight missions" to implement OSTP's strategy and action plan.
The appropriations action came two days after Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced an authorization bill, S. 2817, to clarify space weather responsibilities and promote research. That bill, which focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding, is scheduled for mark up by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (April 27).
Overall, NOAA's satellite programs fared well in the Senate appropriations bill. See SpacePolicyOnline.com's NOAA budget fact sheet for more details. NOAA's major weather satellite programs -- JPSS, GOES-R, and Polar Follow On (PFO) -- were fully funded.
Not everything was approved, though. Like last year, the committee rejected NOAA's $10 million request to build the Earth Observation Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW). NOAA describes it as a risk reduction mission to ensure that it can obtain critical microwave sounding observations in case of a launch or instrument failure on JPSS-1.
The committee also rejected an $8.1 million request to build a new set of COSMIC radio occultation (RO) satellites, although it approved $8.1 million for the associated ground system. The committee encouraged NOAA to use its commercial weather data pilot program to obtain the needed RO data, although it cut NOAA's $5 million request for the pilot program to $3 million (the same as FY2016). It also denied a $4.4 million request for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite. The committee said it supports Jason-3, but now that the satellite is in orbit, funding requests for data analysis and processing should be in a different part of NOAA's budget (the Operations, Research and Facilities account).
The top Democrat on the Senate committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), said last week that she expects the CJS bill to reach the Senate floor in 2-3 weeks. The Senate has not passed any of the 12 regular appropriations bills in several years, but currently is debating the Energy-Water appropriations bill, so perhaps this year will be different. The House Appropriations Committee, however, has not yet marked up its CJS bill and CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) indicated last week that he is not optimistic that Congress will complete action on appropriations bills by October 1 when FY2017 begins. He expects agencies will be funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the first part of FY2017.
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) would receive its full request of $19.8 million for FY2017 under the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill reported from the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday. Commercial space launch would get another $4.5 million in other sections of the bill ($2 million for integration into the National Air Space and $2.5 million for safety). The committee also weighed in on the issue of obtaining insurance for property damage from launch accidents on non-federal property.
FAA/AST is funded as part of the FAA Operations budget. The FY2017 request is $19.826 million, an increase of $2.026 million above FY2016's $17.800 million. FAA/AST and its advocates had to fight to get that $17.8 million last year after the House Appropriations Committee held the office to its FY2015 funding level of $16.6 million instead of approving the $18.1 million requested. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) managed to get $250,000 added during House floor consideration of the bill, but the Senate increased it to $17.4 million and conferees on the final appropriations bill added a bit to reach the $17.8 million total.
This year, the Senate committee is first to act and it approved the full FY2017 request in its report (S. Rept. 114-243) on the T-HUD bill (S. 2844).
FAA/AST regulates and facilitates the commercial space launch industry. Companies wanting to launch payloads to suborbital or orbital destinations, or bring them back to Earth, need an FAA license. FAA/AST also licenses spaceports and is involved in accident investigations for commercial launch failures like those of Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic in October 2014 and SpaceX in June 2015. The office's workload continues to grow as more companies enter the launch services business, hence the need for a bigger budget to pay for more staff positions. The FY2017 request would fund 19 additional full time equivalents (FTEs), bringing the office's staff up to 111 FTEs.
Bridenstine's recently introduced American Space Renaissance Act envisions an expanded role for FAA/AST in areas like space situational awareness. It would authorize $43.2 million for FY2017, growing to $99 million by FY2021. For now, however, Congress is dealing with the President's request of $19.826 million.
The FAA also has a small amount for commercial space transportation in the Research, Engineering, and Development (RE&D) account to fund safety-related research at FAA/AST's Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation (COE CST) and elsewhere. As part of the $97.9 million request for RE&D safety, $2.953 million is for commercial space transportation safety. The Senate committee approved $2.473 million (it is labeled commercial space transportation "security"). Congress appropriated $2 million for this activity in FY2016.
Another $2 million is requested as part of $20 million for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) account for commercial space integration into the National Air Space (NAS). The funding is to allow commercial space launches and reentries to occur without significant disruption to space and air operators. The Senate committee approved the full $20 million for ATM, which presumably includes the $2 million for commercial space integration.
One of FAA/AST's responsibilities is establishing requirements for commercial space launch companies to obtain insurance in case of launch accidents. The Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) Antares failure in October 2014 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA highlighted a grey area when the launch site is owned by a non-federal entity. In that case, MARS is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but is located at a federal launch range -- NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
The committee included report language calling on the FAA to update those insurance regulations. "The Committee understands that current FAA regulations requiring launch providers to clearly obtain insurance to cover property damage in the event of an accident fail to address the status of State and local property." In the case of federal property assigned to a State government, especially at a federal launch range, "the State government should qualify as a 'contractor' or Government Launch Participant with the right to make claims under 14 CFR 440.9(d)." The language is not directive, saying only that the committee "believes" FAA should make that change.
The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved $19.306 billion for NASA in FY2017, a $21 million increase over its FY2016 level of $19.285 billion, in its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill. The Space Launch System (SLS) and its Enhanced Upper Stage (EUS), the Orion spacecraft, commercial crew, and most of the space and earth science portfolio (except for planetary science) fared well. Aeronautics. space technology, and most of space operations held their own.
Describing the Senate committee's action is a challenge this year. Typically, comparisons are made between what the Administration requests and what Congress approves. For FY2017, however, the Administration used a unique approach where part of the money requested ($18.262 billion) is from appropriated funds in the discretionary portion of the federal budget -- the part of the federal budget that has always funded NASA; another portion ($663 million) is from mandatory spending, which funds entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security; and the remainder ($100 million) is from a tax the Administration proposed to levy on oil companies for a clean transportation initiative.
NASA displays its budget request as the combination of the three -- $19.025 billion -- and breaks down the request for individual accounts like science, aeronautics, and space technology accordingly. The $100 million from the oil company tax was designated entirely for aeronautics, for example, so NASA's budget chart shows the aeronautics request as $790.4 million, a sharp increase from the $640 million appropriated for the current year.
Congress summarily rejected the Administration's notion of taxing the oil companies, however, and appropriations committees have no authority over mandatory spending. From the Senate Appropriations Committee's standpoint, therefore, the request was $18.262 billion. Throughout its report, the committee compares what it approved to that figure, not to the $19.025 billion that NASA displays. It therefore is very important to exercise care when reading the committee's report because it may say that it provided more or less than "the request," but that may not be obvious looking at NASA's budget presentation.
The following discussion compares the Senate committee's actions as shown in its report (S. Rept. 114-239 to accompany S. 2837) to current spending instead of to the request because of the ambiguity.
SLS does very well. It is being built in Alabama, the home state of Sen. Richard Shelby, who chairs the CJS subcommittee. The committee approved $2.150 billion, an increase of $150 million over FY2016. Of that amount, $300 million is designated for EUS. Alternately called the Exploration Upper Stage or Enhanced Upper Stage, it is needed for SLS flights that will launch crews aboard the Orion spacecraft. The first SLS mission, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will be a test of an unoccupied Orion and the EUS is not needed for that. The second mission, EM-2, will carry a crew, but NASA has been planning to use an interim upper stage (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) for that mission and then build the EUS for EM-3 and beyond. EUS advocates argue that spending money to human-rate the interim stage for one mission is wasteful. They want to get EUS ready for EM-2 and so far Congress has agreed. The Senate committee also added a small amount of money ($30 million) for Orion compared to current spending, a total of $1.3 billion.
The commercial crew program, for years the source of strong debate between the Administration and Congress, seems to have turned a page. The committee approved $1,184.8 million, slightly less than current spending, but in this case it is a planned reduction since the program has passed its peak funding phase.
The science budget overall is $194 million less than current spending. Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope is lower than FY2016 ($569.4 million versus $620.0 million), but, like commercial crew, it is a planned reduction. Earth science is slightly higher than current funding ($1,984 million compared to $1,921 million in FY2016) and includes $130 million for Landsat 9, with launch in 2020. Planetary science suffers the biggest reduction in this account -- a $275 million cut from $1,631 million currently to $1,356 million. The committee expresses support for the mission to Jupiter's moon Europa that is a favorite of House CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson, but does not specify how much funding is provided. It is widely expected that the House Appropriations Committee will include significant Europa funding and the two committees will reach agreement in conference.
Space technology is level-funded at $686.5 million (compared to FY2016) and the committee specifies that $130 million of that is for the RESTORE-L satellite servicing technology development program that was shifted into space technology from space operations last year. Aeronautics would receive $601 million, $39 million less than FY2016.
A SpacePolicyOnline.com fact sheet provides additional information and tables explaining more of the committee's actions.
Three Senators introduced legislation yesterday to clarify federal agency responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced S. 2817, which allocates specific roles to NOAA, DOD, NASA, NSF and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). NOAA, for example, is directed to "immediately begin planning" to ensure there is no gap in solar observations. The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding. [UPDATE: The Senate Commerce committee announced this afternoon that it will mark up the bill on Wednesday, April 27.] [UPDATE 2: The bill was ordered favorably reported from committee.]
Space weather -- the result of particles emitted by the Sun interacting with Earth's atmosphere and potentially damaging satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid -- is of growing concern. A 2008 report from the National Research Council raised awareness of the societal and economic impacts of space weather. NASA has studied solar and space physics, the underlying science behind space weather, for decades as has the European Space Agency (ESA). Satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point now give warnings of solar eruptions. NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO issues forecasts and alerts when damaging events are expected.
NASA's veteran Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were joined by the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) last year. ACE was launched in 1997 and SOHO in 1995. NASA provided three of SOHO's 12 instruments and operates the spacecraft. SOHO has a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun. The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allow SWPC to make its forecasts.
Last year in its FY2016 budget request, the White House proposed that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, with NOAA responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather. NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for the next space weather satellite. Congress agreed with the assignment of responsibilities, but approved only half the funding. The FY2017 request is also $2.5 million.
In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan. They set six strategic goals to reduce the nation's vulnerability to space weather.
Some of the OSTP goals, such as establishing benchmarks for space weather events, are contained in the new legislation. the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. The bill would clarify the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies for understanding, predicting and forecasting space weather:
The bill has other provisions to foster greater interagency cooperation, multidisciplinary research, and partnerships with international, commercial and academic organizations. It also directs NASA to "seek to implement" missions identified in the most recent NRC Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.
Dan Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, chaired that Decadal Survey and praised the legislation in a press release issued by the Senators: "I believe this legislation will be instrumental in helping the nation achieve the kind of operational space weather system that we've long needed." The CEO and Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Christine McEntee, also supports the bill, saying AGU applauds "the bill's intent to further scientifically informed action towards disaster preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery."
The bill was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which announced on April 21 that it will mark up the bill on April 27 at 10:00 am ET (along with several other bills and pending nominations). All three sponsors of the legislation are members of the committee and of its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee. Peters is the ranking member (top Democrat) on that subcommittee.
Update: This article was updated at 2:20 pm ET on April 21 to reflect the Senate Commerce Committee's announcement that it will mark up the bill next week.
The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.3 billion for NASA today. That is only a first step in the appropriations process, but a sign that Congress wants to maintain NASA at its current funding level. The chairman of the House CJS subcommittee also offered encouraging words today.
NASA's FY2017 budget request is $18.262 billion in appropriated funds and $763 million that would be moved from the mandatory portion of the federal budget (that funds programs like Social Security and Medicare) into the discretionary category and allocated to NASA, for a total of $19.025 billion. Such an approach has never been used before and appropriations committees have no control over mandatory spending. Congress has sharply criticized the Administration for using such a "gimmick," but expressed support for NASA at its current (FY2016) funding level of $19.285 billion.
Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) reasserted his objection to the gimmick, but announced that NASA would receive $19.3 billion for FY2017 under his subcommittee's recommendation. Subcommittee vice-chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) later said that the recommended level for FY2017 is $21 million above FY2016, which still rounds to $19.3 billion.
The committee released a broad summary of the subcommittee's recommendations, but not details. Those typically are provided after full committee markup, which is scheduled for Thursday morning. According to the summary --
Mikulski said yesterday that she expects the bill to go to the Senate floor for consideration in the next 2-3 weeks, though whether it will pass or not remains to be seen. The Senate has not passed any of the 12 individual appropriations bills in several years. Typically, when the new fiscal year begins on October 1, the government ends up being funded by one or more Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that keep agencies at their previous year's funding level, followed by an "omnibus" or "consolidated" appropriations that combines all 12 appropriations bills and funds agencies for the entire fiscal year (a "full year" appropriations).
Shelby's House counterpart, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), clearly expects that to play out this year as well. He was scheduled to speak to a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon today, but stopped by only long enough to apologize profusely that the House Appropriations Committee was marking up other legislation at the same time and his presence was required there. In his brief visit, he said he expects the government to be funded by a CR initially, but is optimistic that a full year appropriations will pass in due course and NASA will do well. He said he expected the Senate markup to be higher in some areas and lower in others than what his House committee will recommend, but it will be worked out in conference: "Senator Shelby is as committed to NASA as I am. ... NASA's number will be one that we are all going to be excited and proud of" and includes funding for the robotic mission to Europa that he champions.
STA was prepared for the possibility that Culberson might not be able to stay long and had arranged in advance for the head of NASA's science programs, John Grunsfeld, to give a presentation instead. Grunsfeld is retiring from NASA at the end of the month and STA used today's event as an opportunity to present him with its Leadership Award while Culberson was present.
Grunsfeld focused on the search for life in the universe, noting that the search for life is different from the search for intelligent life -- whether in the universe or, jokingly, inside the Beltway (a highway that surrounds Washington, DC). After describing NASA efforts to find other Earth-like planets using the Kepler Space Telescope and larger potential telescopes, he was asked about his views on the recently announced Breakthrough Initiative by Yuri Millner and Stephen Hawking to send tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. In short, he thinks "it's cool."
He also said that he considers SLS "transformative" for space science because it can launch much larger spacecraft -- in mass and volume - including space telescopes and planetary exploration spacecraft and dramatically shorten the time to reach destinations compared to today's rockets.
In her 27th and final speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable as a member of Congress, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) today continued her strong advocacy for NASA. While not providing any specifics about what will happen this week as the Senate Appropriations Committee marks up the FY2017 funding bill that includes NASA and NOAA, she said her first goal is "do no harm." She predicts the bill will be voted on by the full Senate in two-three weeks, which would be a significant accomplishment. The Senate has not passed any of the 12 stand-alone appropriations bills in several years.
Mikulski is retiring at the end of this year. She has served in Congress since 1977, first as a member of the House (1977-1987), and then as a Senator. A social worker by training, her enthusiasm for NASA, NOAA and other federal government science programs grew over time along with her influence in their progress as she rose through the ranks of the appropriations committee. She was the first woman chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the last Congress, when Democrats controlled the Senate. Today she is the top Democrat on the full committee and the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA.
At today's luncheon, she said she was meeting with the current CJS subcommittee chair, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), this afternoon to finalize their recommendations for the FY2017 CJS bill, which will be formally marked up at subcommittee level tomorrow afternoon. Full committee markup is on Thursday. She joked that "I've got my shoulders squared, I've got my lipstick on, I've got my agenda" and "we're armed and ready" to fight for three principles:
"We will make sure that we will have the resources we need to keep NASA going ... exactly in the direction that it's going in and I will do everything I can to find targeted funding for the new opportunities and the new possibilities..."
She added that she would also strive to make sure there is adequate funding for NOAA's weather satellites and other activities (like fisheries), as well as the National Science Foundation, which is funded in the same bill.
She insisted that the bill would go to the Senate floor in the next two-three weeks.
Noting that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), wants to add $17 billion more for defense, she said she would not fight that effort, but in return she wants to add $17 billion more for science.
"We need to stand up for the future ... and we need to stand up for science, we need to stand up for discovery, we need to stand up for exploration. It is in our national DNA and... we need to fund it in a way that is sustainable and reliable and undeniable that when you start a project ... you can carry it all the way through."
She continued that "we need to stand up for our scientists." Not only do they need to be assured of jobs after getting their degrees, but "scientists should not subpoened to talk to the United States Senate ... shouldn't be badgered in the budget ... and we shouldn't pull the plug on them."
Mikulski stressed that although she is retiring from the Senate, she plans to remain involved in supporting science by "putting my energy into young people."
"Don't think I'm retiring. Think of me aboard a rocket ship. I'm moving to a new launch pad and I'm ready to blast off and I'm going to say -- May the Force Be With You."
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 18-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
As expected, Congress did not meet the April 15 deadline to pass a FY2017 budget and there is no indication that it will succeed in doing so any time soon. Nonetheless, the appropriations process must proceed. This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the bills that fund the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (Transportation-HUD) and NASA and NOAA (Commerce-Justice-Science). Subcommittee markups are on Tuesday; full committee on Thursday. That's just a first step -- there's a long way to go -- but will give an indication of how the Senate, at least, is looking at funding those programs.
One of NASA's most stalwart supporters in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), is retiring this year. Tomorrow (Monday) she will give her annual speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, which may offer a preview of what to expect at the CJS markup. Mikulski is a very powerful advocate for NASA because of her seniority on the appropriations committee (she chaired the full committee and the CJS subcommittee when Democrats controlled the Senate and is the top Democrat on both panels now). It will be interesting to see if any senior Democratic appropriator steps up to the plate for NASA next year. CJS also appropriates money to NOAA and Mikulski supports NOAA, too, but she is more publicly critical of NOAA's management of the weather satellite programs.
The House Armed Services Committee will begin marking up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week. (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation? Or, for that matter, what a markup is? Read our "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.) Subcommittee markups are on Wednesday and Thursday. The Strategic Forces subcommittee oversees most defense space issues. Its markup is on Thursday at noon. Full committee markup is next week.
On Tuesday, the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on small satellites and the commercial space launch industry. Witnesses are Elliott Pulham of the Space Foundation, Eric Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Jason Andrews from Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle-based company that matches customers who need to put small payloads into orbit with launch service providers and offers associated services (like payload integration).
NASA is having one of its "Destination Station" events here in Washington on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but we haven't heard much about it other than a media advisory from Johnson Space Center. It reveals that the non-profit organization that manages research aboard the U.S. segment of the International Space Station (ISS), the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), is having an "industry day" on Thursday. Oddly, we could find no mention of it on the CASIS website so we don't have any details other than what is in the media advisory. The most recent "event" on the CASIS website was for something that took place in February. Perhaps CASIS will update its website soon. NASA's Destination Station website could use an update as well. We confess that we were not aware that NASA had a Destination Station series of events until now. Apparently they have been held in various places across the country since 2011. NASA has a dedicated website for it that features a list of "where we've been, where we're going," but it ends in July 2015. According to the website, Destination Station is an ISS "national awareness campaign." It would be hard to find anyone who disagrees that more effort is needed to make the nation aware of ISS. The Internet is a great way to do that, but out-of-date content doesn't help the cause.
Friday is Earth Day 2016. Go out and do something nice for our planet!
Monday, April 18
Tuesday April 19
Wednesday-Thursday, April 20-21
Thursday, April 21
Friday, April 22
NOAA is moving forward in implementing a congressional directive to conduct a pilot project to purchase commercial weather data and assess the viability of incorporating it into NOAA’s numerical weather models. NOAA has concerns about the accuracy, verifiability and reliability of commercial data. The pilot project is intended to answer some of those questions.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) led the effort to include the provision in the FY2016 appropriations act. Congress allocated $3 million for the pilot project in FY2016 and NOAA is requesting $5 million in FY2017. In a report submitted to Congress in March, but made public only this week, NOAA says it is still working through the details of how to spend that money, but estimates one-third will be spent on purchasing data and two-thirds on NOAA’s evaluation of the data’s utility.
“Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program: Report to Congress” is posted on the website of NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce along with the agency's January 2016 Commercial Space Policy.
A spokesperson for Bridenstine's office told SpacePolicyOnline.com that the Congressman is glad to see the report has been released and that NOAA continues to take steps to begin incorporating innovative commercial data sources into its weather forecasts. He will continue to track NOAA's progress and, as chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Environment Subcommittee, carry out oversight to ensure the timelines laid out in the report are met.
In an interview on April 14, Steve Volz, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Satellite and Information Services, National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Services (NESDIS), told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he hopes several vendors, perhaps two to four, will respond to a Request for Proposals (RFPs) to be issued in the next quarter. He prefers to use the money to obtain data from more vendors than to get more data from one vendor. He thinks it will take through the end of FY2017 to complete the pilot project.
NOAA has chosen radio occultation (RO) data as the focus of the pilot project. Such data are currently obtained by a constellation of COSMIC satellites built by NOAA in cooperation with the Air Force and Taiwan. Sensors on the satellites use Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere. When combined with measurements from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.
Thousands of measurements per day are useful and COSMIC currently provides about 2,000-3,000. NOAA and Taiwan are building a follow-on system, COSMIC-2, that will increase that number to about 10,000. Commercial sources could increase that to 50,000-100,000, which Volz says is an upper limit in terms of when costs would outweigh benefits. From an operational standpoint, such data have a useful lifetime of only about a day, Volz added, although they can be useful for research thereafter.
The goal of using commercial sources is not just to reduce costs to the government, but to increase the resiliency of weather satellite systems. Bridenstine frequently expresses concerns about the vulnerability of the "Battlestar Gallactica” spacecraft in service today, arguing in favor of a disaggregated approach of using many smaller satellites, which reduces the risk of a single launch or satellite failure and complicates potential enemy targeting.
One NOAA concern about using commercial data is that companies typically restrict a customer's use of data so they can sell it to multiple clients. The United States, however, makes weather satellite data available globally on a free and open basis in compliance with World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 (WMO 40). Volz calls it an "underlying tenet of how we do business." Many other countries also do so and "we use more than we give," he asserted and pointed to Europe's recent agreement to make all data from its Copernicus system available.
At a March 16 hearing before his House SS&T Environment Subcommittee, Bridenstine questioned whether WMO 40 really requires that all data be provided on that basis, however. He asked NOAA to determine precisely what commercial data could remain proprietary while stressing that he supports U.S. compliance with WMO 40. His goal is to ensure “we’re not destroying a market that would not otherwise exist” by providing more data for free than necessary.
The witness at the hearing was NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan. She said she had just returned from meeting with the WMO Secretary General in Geneva, Switzerland, but had not engaged in detailed discussions with him on this topic. Overall, Sullivan is “intrigued” watching the space sector evolve and finds the prospect of commercial weather data “promising, but still quite nascent.”
In addition to releasing the report to Congress this week, NOAA published a draft Commercial Space Activities Assessment Process last week. It is open for comment until May 9. Links to the draft and instructions on how to comment are on the Office of Space Commerce website.
Bridenstine is proposing a parallel commercial weather data pilot for the Department of Defense. The provision is in his just-introduced American Space Renaissance Act, but he has indicated that he will attempt to also include it in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will markup that bill at the end of this month. Bridenstine serves on both the House SS&T Committee, which oversees NOAA, and HASC.
Update: This article was updated on April 15, 2016 to incorporate Congressman Bridenstine's reaction to NOAA's report.
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, renowned physicists Stephen Hawking and Freeman Dyson, and former NASA Ames Center Director Pete Worden were among the members of a high profile group that announced a "Breakthrough Starshot" initiative today, the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's historic flight into space. Milner, who was named after Gagarin, is devoting $100 million of his fortune for phase one of the effort to send hundreds or thousands of postage stamp sized spacecraft to Alpha Centauri, the closest star, 4.37 light years away.
Speaking at the One World Observatory in New York City, Milner described advances in microfabrication, nanotechnology and photonics that have or will make it possible to send tiny spacecraft (nanocraft) on such a journey using laser-propelled sails (lightsails) for propulsion. Experiments with solar sails have already taken place, but the energy of our Sun is insufficient to send a spacecraft to such a distance. Instead, an array of lasers on Earth will provide the force to push the "StarChips" along at a very high velocity -- 20 percent of the speed of light.
A spacecraft could reach Pluto in three days at that velocity, compared to the 9.5 years required for the New Horizons mission using chemical propulsion. For the StarChips, the journey to Alpha Centauri would take 20 years instead of 30,000 years.
Milner envisions launches of the spacecraft, perhaps one a day, will begin in 15-20 years, though he stressed that the time frames are notional. The idea is that by launching hundreds or thousands of the StarChips, the overall mission of sending spacecraft to fly past planets orbiting another star can be achieved even if many lose their way or are damaged by collisions with interstellar dust, for example.
Freeman Dyson, who has done pioneering theoretical work in interstellar travel, participated in the panel to offer a "dissenting" view that there will be many interesting objects along the way and the focus should not be just on getting to Alpha Centauri. He believes that life is most likely to be found not on planets, but small bodies like comets and asteroids. The space between here and Alpha Centauri is not a void, he said, but filled with "trillions" of asteroids and comets that will underpin a sustainable program of exploration rather than focusing on just a single destination.
The project is one of a series sponsored by Breakthrough Initiatives, which describes itself as a program of scientific and technological exploration probing the big questions of life in the universe.
Milner, Hawking and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerman form the Board of the Starshot program. Milner described it as a research and engineering program to demonstrate proof of concept, to be followed by a demonstration phase and then the actual launches. Worden will lead the program.
Worden said he has spoken with NASA leaders and they are "eager" to support the idea. He pointed out that much of the work on nanocraft and lightsails that Milner described was funded through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
The $100 million will fund research grants and support relevant scientific and engineering research and development. All the research will be in the public domain and the activity is envisioned as a global effort.
As promised, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) released a final draft of his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) at the Space Symposium today. It will be officially introduced in the House of Representatives on Thursday. Bridenstine created a website devoted exclusively to the legislation and welcomes input.
Bridenstine said earlier this year that he does not expect the bill to pass en toto. Instead, he sees it as a repository of plug-and-play provisions that could be inserted into other pieces of legislation, including this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Bridenstine serves on both the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which authorizes NASA and NOAA activities, and the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), which oversees defense programs.
The bill would "permanently secure the United States of America as the preeminent spacefaring nation."
Bridenstine created a website where interested persons can read the bill and a section-by-section analysis, provide input, and sign up for updates. It is a broad bill encompassing military, civil and commercial space activities. According to the website, the bill's objectives are to:
Drafting legislation typically takes place behind the scenes, with stakeholders lobbying to get favored provisions in and troublesome provisions out. Bridenstine has welcomed input from everywhere, however, posting an initial draft on his website in March and creating a link for input to this current version on the ASRA website. In a sense, the bill is a potpourri of provisions that align with Bridenstine's view of the world, which champions a strong defense and promotes commercial activities.
A few (yes, just a few) of the provisions in the 110-page bill would --
National Security Space
Editor's Note: The section-by-section portion of the website is NOT user-friendly. Here's a hint: be sure to use the sliding scale at the bottom of the webpage to make the font large enough to read, not the more obvious + sign to which we are all so accustomed. And be forewarned -- there are a lot of ads.
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