March 28, 2013

COSMIC: Filling the Weather Satellite Gap

The media has been full of headlines and stories about a looming gap in weather satellite coverage (see NY Times story here) and the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) has identified the weather satellite gap as a high-risk threat to the nation (GAO info here).   The U.S. weather satellite network has been an essential driver of improvement in numerical weather prediction during the past several decades, but mismanagement of the nation's weather satellite program by NOAA (documented by a number of independent groups such as this) has cost the nation billions and threatens  a serious gap in weather satellite coverage.  The biggest problem have delays and cost overruns for the polar-orbiter satellite program, with the costs of replacing the current satellites in the many billions of dollars (weather satellites are not cheap).

The COSMIC Satellite 

But there have been some great successes in weather satellite acquisition, and none have had more positive impact at a lower cost than the COSMIC constellation of satellites that use the bending of GPS signals to get temperature and humidity soundings (soundings describe how these variables vary with height).   But an enhancement of this extraordinary satellite system, called COSMIC-2,  is now being threatened by NOAA's inability to secure a small congressional appropriation to support their role in an international partnership and the aggressive congressional lobbying of some private-sector groups who would like to get into the satellite business.And as noted below,  an enhanced COSMIC system could go a long way towards filling the looming satellite gap.

So how do GPS weather satellites work?  Relatively inexpensive satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) receive the signal from GPS satellites placed in orbit for navigation.  The bending and delay of the signal by the earth's atmosphere allows one to determine the vertical variation (soundings) of temperature and moisture with height in a very accurate way (see graphic).  This is like having many

weather balloons (radiosondes) over the entire planet...very useful information.  And the receiving satellite can be quite inexpensive, since all they have to do is receive the GPS signal.

A group of these GPS-receiver weather satellites have already been placed in orbit by a joint Taiwan-U.S. initiative called COSMIC (Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate).  This has been a bargain for the U.S. taxpayer since Taiwan has provided hundreds of millions of dollars for this project and many of these micro-satellites can be launched at the same time.  The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, including Drs. Bill Kuo and Richard Anthes, have played an important role in the organization, management, and development of this satellite system.  In 2006 the first six satellites (COSMIC-1) were launched and they were an extraordinary success.   Thousands of atmospheric soundings worldwide are being taken per day---here is a sample of those taken during a 3-h period (see graphic).

The impact of the COSMIC satellite for improving weather prediction has been huge with major operational centers such as the European Center and the U.S. Environmental Modeling Center (EMC) finding that even the limited initial system was the one of the most valuable sources of information for improving forecasts (see graphic showing the GPS satellite data was fifth in importance for the European Center).  Really stunning.  Can you imagine the impact of have 100 instead of 6 COSMIC satellites?

With the original constellation aging, Taiwan and its U.S. partners (including the U.S. Air Force) have planned COSMIC-2, with far superior GPS receivers and increased coverage.  Improvements in antenna design and signal tracking algorithm will provide better quality data. Ans  in addition to tracking GPS, COSMIC-2 will also track GLONASS (the Russian system) and GALILEO (European system) navigation systems, which will considerably increase the number of soundings per COSMIC-2 satellite.  COSMIC-2 will provide a factor of 5 more soundings than COSMIC, with even better quality.

In summary, the new COSMIC  system will be a great deal for the U.S. taxpayer with Taiwan providing large amount of funding.  A proven, cost-effective, satellite program with profoundly positive impacts on weather prediction skill.   NOAA requested a small amount of COSMIC-2 funding in the FY11 and FY12 budgets but these requests were turned down by Congress, delaying the program and threatening the partnership.   These are startlingly bad decisions.  However, there is hope that NOAA will secure a share of COSMIC-2 with funding from the Superstorm Sandy supplemental appropriation, recently passed by Congress.  This is appropriate because COSMIC has been shown to improve hurricane predictions

Lack of congressional action on COSMIC may in part be traced to lobbying by a group of private sector firms that believe there is money to be made in stopping COSMIC and then hitting the government for funding of their own satellites.   A prime example is a company called PlanetIQ, whose CEO testified to Congress recently about their company taking over the GPS satellite business.   I learned first hand about this company when one of their representatives contacted me, offering to set up a call with their CEO.  He wanted me to blog about them and how THEY were the solution.  But the information he provided me was full of untruths.  For example, the PlanetIQ rep told me that COSMIC

"misses most of North America, all of Europe and Russia. It also doesn’t cover most of the South-Pacific, a major contributor to global weather activity. "  This is totally false, COSMIC and COSMIC-2 have global coverage as illustrated by the map above.

"The experimental COSMIC prototype constellation is dying, the government of Taiwan has not a penny budgeted for its replacement,"  Not true.   COSMIC-2 is well along and Taiwan is investing tens of millions of dollars.

"COSMIC is not the answer, nor is a U.S. government program to subsidize programs of other nations in the new austere federal budget environment realistic. "  This is really bizarre.  We are getting a great deal with Taiwan covering a large part of the cost of COSMIC.  What could be better in an "austere federal budget environment" than having someone else help pay the bills?

Recently, the CEO of PlanetIQ, Anne Miglarese, provided testimony to Congress where she stated:

"But the satellites that currently collect this data are degrading while planned replacements have been delayed, are insufficient to meet the stated needs of users around the world, and will cover only a small sliver of the United States."

Much of this is simply untrue...for example COSMIC will cover ALL of the U.S. and not a "sliver." and COSMIC-2 will very much serve the needs of users from around the world.

The Cosmic-2 coverage is far denser than Cosmic-1 over the entire planet.

It appears that either the folks at PlanetIQ are either being disingenuous or their SatelliteIQ is far less than their PlanetIQ.  According to her testimony in Congress, CEO Miglarese wants NOAA to reject COSMIC and sign a contract with her firm committing NOAA to purchase their services.  Reject a proven system that is heavily supported by another country to commit to a firm that has no proven track record in financing and launching such a satellite constellation.  As Texans would say a group that is "all hat and no cattle."

I believe that the private sector should be taking an increased role in the numerical weather forecasting enterprise, but rejecting probably the most effective and cost effective weather satellite effort to date, one whose costs are shared with another nation, is incomprehensible.  But to make COSMIC-2 a success. NOAA needs to make a commitment to participate and to provide the needed partial support.   NOAA and DOC leadership needs to act and act soon, particularly since COSMIC-2 could greatly mitigate the upcoming weather satellite gap caused by their previous errors and mismanagement.


  1. raaistIndeed, if you consider the cost to the Govt for Cosmic-1 Planet IQ is expensive. Cosmic-2 should be able to deliver over 10000 profiles per day and because the Taiwanese have invested significantly, the cost to the USG is much lower than the $60M-$80M per year that private companies want for their data. I estimate about 2-3 times as expensive.
    BTW, I presume the poor geographic coverage issue the Miglarese refers to is because the first 6 Cosmic-2 satellites are expected to go into a low inclination orbit. That will produce minimal data at high latitudes. The second Cosmic-2 launch will be high inclination and yield the coverage in your graphic.

  2. Fro Yahoo:
    "There is currently a massive storm churning over the Atlantic that spans the entire ocean basin, stretching all the way from Canada to Europe, and from Greenland to the Caribbean."
    The cover shows a satellite image of the storm. It's a whopper!

  3. Chipping in seems like a "no brainer", Cliff....and therefore something well suited to the state of current North American governments.


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