Congress, NASA

Another year, another hurricane satellite bill

On Friday Congressmen Ron Klein (D-FL) and Charlie Melancon (D-LA) introduced HR 3654, the Hurricane Satellite Modernization Act. The bill would authorize $3 billion for NASA and NOAA in fiscal years 2010 through 2027 (!!) to build and launch a series of spacecraft called the Extended Ocean Vector Winds Mission (XOVWM, an acronym that looks just about impossible to pronounce). XOVWM would replace the existing, but aging, QuikSCAT satellite that measures winds over the ocean, useful for studying hurricanes, among other applications.

Klein, in a press release associated with the bill’s introduction, cites an internal NOAA memo that states that QuikSCAT is likely to fail in “weeks or months”. “This is a serious wake-up call which reminds us we have no time to waste,” Klein said.

If this sounds familiar, it should: last year Klein and Melancon introduced similar legislation authorizing the development of XOVWM. (Compare the current bill with last year’s HR 6993 and you’ll find that they’re essentially identical, with only minor tweaks to the language and the years the funding is authorized for.) Klein said in his statement Friday that he planned to reintroduce the bill this year but “his decision to introduce the legislation today was directly spurred by the NOAA warning” about the impending failure of QuikSCAT. Last year’s bill, though, was introduced at almost the same time as this year’s: September 22, 2008 versus September 25, 2009. If it’s so important, why wait until late in the current session to do so?

There’s also the debate about just how important QuikSCAT is to hurricane forecasting. The Palm Beach Post reports that the NOAA memo states that the loss of QuikSCAT would have little effect on forecasts for storms near the US and Caribbean because of alternative means of collecting the data, although the satellite is useful for studying storms in the open ocean. Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, said a QuikSCAT replacement “isn’t critical” but “would be welcome”.

2 comments to Another year, another hurricane satellite bill

  • […] Another year, another hurricane satellite bill – Space Politics […]

  • red

    XOVWM is one of the missions described in the National Academies “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond”.

    Here’s some of the background there:

    “The NCEP Tropical Prediction Center has found QuikSCAT to be critical for accurate hurricane forecasts and warnings … XOVWM would be a key U.S. contribution to weather forecasting. In data-assimilation studies and at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, scatterometer data have been demonstrated to improve predictions of storm-center locations and intensity. High-resolution observations of winds in the coastal region will also allow improved estimates of upwelling and the associated increases in nutrients for fisheries management. Use of data on winds to force coastal-circulation models will improve estimates of currents for such activities as search and rescue, shipping, and monitoring of oil-platform safety and oil spills and thus will contribute greatly to increases in the safety and economic efficiency of these activities. …”

    From the Obama space policy campaign document

    “Because of decades of investment in research satellites, scientists now better understand and can better predict natural phenomena such as hurricanes and weather patterns. However, many of our current monitoring and research satellites are expected to end their operational life between now and 2016. … The recommendations in the recent National Research Council decadal survey on Earth observations from space will guide his priorities in this regard.”

    In a lot of our discussions here, the job program aspect of Ares 1/5 has often been cited. From a state by state 2012 Obama Presidential campaign point of view, I contend that most of the Ares money is going to states that don’t matter (Texas, Utah, Alabama, etc) since if they’re in contention, Obama has in effect won. The exception is Florida, but I’ve suggested that Constellation isn’t needed there if it’s replaced with a really major NASA use of EELVs and Falcons launched from Florida (enough to require additional pads, etc). That could be supplemented with other NASA work like more ISRU (where Florida is the lead). XOVWM is another example along these lines where Constellation/Shuttle losses for Florida could be offset by other Florida gains.

    The applications noted above (hurricane forecasts, shipping data, fisheries, search and rescue, oil spill tracking, etc) tend to be useful to Florida and its economy, given Florida’s geography. Thus, getting a mission like this one implemented (or equivalent data) implemented by NASA or NOAA could be a plus from the point of view of satisfying Florida voters. It looks like XOVWM would be an improvement over QuikSCAT in terms of criteria like spatial resolution, and I’d bet that a patched-together partly-compatible assembly of data from miscellaneous sources (planes, buoys, foreign satellite data) wouldn’t be as good as QuikSCAT.

    I’m not sure where XOVWM would launch from if it’s built – if it’s from Florida, of course that’s another plus for them.

    Not only that, but the Tropical Prediction Center/National Hurricane Center is in Miami, Florida, and it uses QuikSCAT data. I’d imagine that there would be work there associated with XOVWM if it became operational.


    NOAA Operational Ocean Surface Winds Requirements Workshop, National Hurricane Center, Miami, FL, June 5-7, 2006

    So, in contrast to the view that the Obama Administration needs to stick with Ares because of the Florida job politics side (eg: the Florida jobs that may appear in Florida in 2017-2019 when Ares 1 goes operational), I’d instead suggest that they use the Ares funds to actually launch lots of productive payloads from Florida using existing and near-term rockets, including lots of HSF payloads of course, but also launching considerably more satellites like XOVWM that are useful to Florida in other ways than just the launches themselves. The beauty of Ares is that it’s so expensive that cancelling it allows you to do all sorts of useful HSF work and satellite work as well with the same budget windfall.

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