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The competition heats up: Mandated by Congress to use commercial weather data obtained from privately launched weather satellites, NOAA has announced its first plan for doing so.
The first Commercial Weather Data Pilot, or CWDP, will kick off this summer with a solicitation for GPS radio occultation data of the sort NOAA and Eumetsat have been using for years to improve weather forecasts. GPS radio occultation receivers that have flown on a handful of research satellites and the U.S.-Taiwanese COSMIC constellation obtain highly detailed temperature and humidity soundings by observing tiny distortions of U.S. Air Force GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere. While the U.S. and Taiwan are preparing to replace the six original COSMIC satellites with the first six of 12 planned satellites slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy perhaps late this year, meteorologists would like to see scores of additional GPS radio occultation satellites in orbit.
Several companies, including GeoOptics, PlanetiQ and Spire, have announced plans to address that demand by deploying constellations of dozens to hundreds of small satellites equipped with GPS radio occultation receivers. Spire launched its first four operational satellites last September.
If this goes as I hope, private companies will launch enough satellites to provide the data, at a far lower cost than NOAA spends to build and launch its own satellites, so that eventually it will not pay for the government to do it anymore. Just as private space is replacing NASA in supplying crew and cargo to ISS, private space can do the same for NOAA.
And like NASA initially, NOAA’s managers have been very reluctant to allow this to happen, as it will eventually take the business from them and give it to others. Since they, like NASA, can’t do it very efficiently, however, they can’t really argue their case very well, which is why Congress has been forcing their hand.