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Senate Bill Sets Stiff Requirements for Future NOAA Satellites - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015
Updated: 20-May-2015 05:34 PM

UPDATE, May 20, 2015:   The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, as amended, today.  The amendments are posted on the committee's website.  

ORIGINAL STORY, May 14, 2015:  A bill introduced today in the Senate by the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee would set stiff requirements for future NOAA satellites as part of an effort to improve "seasonal" weather forecasts.  The bill, S. 1331, is scheduled for markup by the committee next week.

Committee chairman John Thune (R-SD) teamed with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) to introduce the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act.  "Seasonal" is defined in the bill as longer than two weeks, but shorter than two years.  The main goal is to improve forecasts for unusually cold winters or hot summers, or drought, but the bill also includes provisions aimed at reforming NOAA's procurement of satellites.

The intent of some of the satellite-related provisions is not clear and questions posed to the committee by SpacePolicyOnline.com were not answered as of the time of this writing. The following summary therefore relies simply on the language in the bill, which would require NOAA to --

  • improve procurement of polar and geostationary satellites and assess the operational viability of alternate observation platforms such as microsatellite constellations and ocean observing platforms;
  • use competitive procurement processes to acquire polar and geostationary satellites "in a program phase via a single procurement action" ("program phase" is defined as acquisition of a series of satellites sharing a common architecture, which sounds like a block buy);
  • assure that satellites are procured or acquired in a manner that "secures the best value" that takes into consideration integration with current ground systems, integration of spacecraft and instruments, capacity to respond to changes in requirements and credibility of risk management, and continuity and consistency of capability;
  • complete and operationalize the radio occultation "program of record in effect on the day before enactment of this Act" by deploying constellations of microsatellites in equatorial and polar orbits, integrating the resulting data into all national operational weather forecast models, and ensuring the resulting data are free and open to all;
  • develop all specifications for NOAA satellites based on "operational needs"; and
  • contract with the National Academy of Sciences by September 2018 -- after its next Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space is completed -- for a 2-year study that includes recommendations on how to make NOAA's satellite portfolio more robust and cost-effective (the bill lists a number of specific topics to be addressed).

In addition, NOAA is prohibited from procuring any future "program phase" of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) if the aggregate cost exceeds the aggregate cost "that was incurred ... in procuring the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 and 2" as adjusted for inflation.  NOAA usually expresses the cost of the JPSS program, which includes the first two satellites, as $11.3 billion.  That cost includes about $4 billion from NOAA's share of the since-cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  Whether the bill's sponsors intend to use $11.3 billion, as adjusted for inflation, as the ceiling for the cost of additional JPSS "program phases" or if they mean to exclude the NPOESS costs is one of the questions that remains to be answered.

The committee plans to markup this bill on May 20, along with several others, including one on Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness.

The House is scheduled to debate its Weather Forecasting Improvement Act, H.R. 1561, next week.  H.R. 1561 and S. 1331 seem to have similar intents, especially changing how NOAA procures satellites, but take different approaches.


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