China not the ‘silver bullet’ for U.S. weather satellite data

Given the vital importance of weather forecasts to protecting lives, our economy and national security, it would be imprudent not to investigate all viable options to mitigate the likely gap in weather satellite data, which the Government Accountability Office estimates at 17 to 53 months starting as soon as 2014. Yet one proposed solution that would fill the gap using data from China has not only drawn the ire of Congress, but also ignores the capabilities of a maturing commercial weather satellite industry inside our own borders.

The U.S. weather satellite program, managed and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with support from NASA and the Department of Defense, is by all accounts on shaky ground. Years of poor planning and execution, massive cost overruns, and shrinking federal budgets have led to delays in replacement satellites that now threaten a disruption in the data used by computer models and forecasters to predict hurricanes, snowstorms and severe weather outbreaks.

NOAA is looking at a variety of options to combat the expected data gap. But a recent report commissioned by the agency calls the use of weather data from Chinese government satellites “the sole silver bullet.”

Despite a successful history of international cooperation in the collection of weather data from space—primarily between the U.S. and Europe—lawmakers at a congressional hearing last week not surprisingly expressed deep reservations about entering into such a relationship with China. They cited both the history of strained relations between the U.S. and China, and the risks of relying on any foreign nation for such critical data.

“It should be alarming that we may be in a position to have to rely on international partners for weather data and to protect lives and property,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment, at last week’s hearing titled “Dysfunction in Management of Weather and Climate Satellites.”

Moreover, it would be foolish to think there is a silver-bullet solution to such a complex problem. Mitigating the data gap will require multiple strategies that should be worked in tandem. One such strategy—supporting development of a U.S. commercial weather satellite sector that is now on the cusp—would dramatically lower government costs while creating high-tech American jobs and increasing U.S. exports. Fortunately, there is a blueprint for providing almost exactly this kind of support.

It was just over a decade ago when the next generation of U.S. intelligence imagery satellites was well over budget and behind schedule, at a time when the post-9/11 demand for high-resolution imagery was rapidly overtaxing an aging fleet of government satellites. The solution? The intelligence agencies partnered with the U.S. private sector to boost development of a commercial industry for satellite imagery.

By signaling its intent to purchase imagery from the private satellite operators, the government instilled investor confidence in a young but promising industry. This approach ultimately mitigated the intelligence community’s risk of “flying blind” for much less than it would have cost to fulfill its imagery requirements entirely through government-owned-and-operated satellites. It also sparked what is now over a $2 billion per year global market led by a U.S. company, and led to transformative technologies such as Google Earth, online mapping and mobile navigation apps.

Fast forward to today and the emerging industry of commercial weather satellites is poised to follow a similar path. Multiple U.S. companies stand ready to launch privately funded satellites that would augment our national systems. Data from these smaller, lighter and less expensive satellites would help mitigate the upcoming weather data gap, avoid future gaps, and meet the rising global demand for environmental data across the public and private sectors.

“There have been other valuable services that government has provided in the past that have evolved into private sector services,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), vice chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “We want to especially of course encourage that at a time when the government has such a huge deficit.”

Private investment is indeed waiting in the wings to get these companies off the ground. All that’s needed to unlock it is for NOAA to take concrete steps toward implementing a competitive procurement strategy for atmospheric data from commercial sources, which Congress has long urged the agency to do.

It's an approach that's served the nation well before and can do so again, helping to ensure that weather forecasts of the future are as good as—if not better than—those of the past.

Miglarese is president and chief executive officer of PlanetiQ, a company currently leveraging private funds to launch a network of small weather satellites.