NOAA adopts portfolio approach to Earth-observation mission

SAN FRANCISCO – At the direction of the Biden Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) is adopting a portfolio approach.

“For us that means not just launching one satellite at a time and building that satellite really well, but seeing how all the systems work together,” Stephen Volz, Assistant Administrator for NOAA NESDIS, said May 25 during a Space Foundation webinar. When NOAA considers obtaining data from geostationary orbit, for example, the agency will consider European and Asian satellite constellations “to see how we can bring those together to have the best mix and match of instruments and observations in the coming years,” he added.

Similarly, in low Earth orbit, NOAA is preparing for “a significant and fundamental change” in its approach to gathering data “by taking advantage of that proliferation of capable observing systems that are being launched by many partners in the public domain and by making best use of all of those different observations,” Volz said.

Those partners include the European Space Agency, Eumetsat, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, NASA and the U.S. Space Force.

At the same time, NOAA is making significant investments its next generation of Earth-observing satellites as well as ground and IT systems to transfer data and move them into the cloud. Cloud service providers are helping NOAA handle the growing volume of data much more economically and efficiently than it could on its own, Volz said.

NOAA’s future Earth-observing satellite architecture will be far different from the current one, which includes the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) Series and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

Current plans call for the GOES-R follow-on, called Geostationary and Extended Observations, to include five instruments: a sophisticated imager and lightning mapper like its predecessors in addition to sensors to monitor atmosphere composition and ocean color ocean as well as a hyperspectral infrared sounder.

At one time, NOAA considered adding a satellite in a highly-elliptical Tundra orbit to obtain persistent observation of polar regions to its future geostationary satellite constellation. While monitoring the Arctic remains important for deciphering weather patterns and climate monitoring, NOAA is working with the Canadian Space Agency and European partners to determine the best approach for an Arctic Observing Mission.

“You can do that with a satellite in a highly elliptical orbit slowly drifting over the poles so you get staring or you can do that with proliferation from low Earth orbit,” Volz said. “Think about a constellation of 20 smallsats, which all cover the poles. You stitch those together and you have a pretty persistent imagery approach for the poles.”

Government agencies around the world are developing and launching small satellites for proliferated low-Earth orbit constellations.

The U.S. Space Force, ESA, Eumetsat and NASA are pioneers in efforts to compare the benefits of data gathered by constellations of small satellites making common measurements with large satellites capable of observing wider swaths, Volz said.

The small satellite constellations “allow for flexibilities in instrumentation and in greater coverage than we have with the old approach,” Volz said. “We’re working with our partners to see what they’re learning, but also potentially to use that same approach for our low Earth orbit satellites in the next generation.”

NOAA also seeks to profit from the work of commercial partners. NESDIS may be able to take advantage, for example, of the investment SpaceX is making in its Starlink broadband constellation.

“We focus on the instruments and the measurements,” Volz said. By marrying NOAA instruments with commercial satellite constellations, the agency may identify “a more efficient approach” to making observations in low Earth orbit, he added.

During the webinar, Volz also discussed NOAA’s Commercial Weather Data Pilot, an initiative to identify and purchase promising datasets. NOAA awarded indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contracts in November to GeoOptics and Spire Global. GeoOptics won a follow-on contract for data delivery.

“We are now ingesting those data operationally into our services, right alongside our own COSMIC-2 data and our partner access radio occultation data into our models and into our data systems for enhancement of our  weather forecasts,” Volz said. “We expect to continue this into the future. Spire and GeoOptics are both under contract and we will issue additional delivery orders beyond this current one to buy more data.”

At the same time, NOAA is looking for additional commercial datasets to support its mission.

“So far we haven’t identified any that are at the same level that radio occupation was several years ago, although we’re continuously working with the community to identify them,” Volz said.

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