Lawmakers uncomfortable with China solution for satellite gap

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Lawmakers are not enthusiastic about the possibility of future U.S. weather forecasts relying on data from Chinese polar-orbiting satellites.

At a joint hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittees on Environment and Oversight, members pressed officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Government Accountability Office on why and how Chinese satellite data emerged as a viable option for NOAA.

NOAA, facing a potential lengthy gap in weather satellite coverage if its current aging crop of polar-orbiting satellites fails before the launch of its next-generation satellites in 2017, commissioned an outside study to determine ways to mitigate the loss of data vital to U.S. forecast models produced by the National Weather Service.

As FCW reported in early September, the study concluded the only "silver bullet" solution for NOAA would be to incorporate data from Chinese satellites FY-3C and FY-3D, which have sensors comparable to NOAA's next-generation Joint Polar Satellite System satellites.

"I have grave concerns about incorporating data into U.S. systems from a country well-known for persistent and malicious cyberattacks on our nation," said Rep. Paul Broun, chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee.

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart (R-Utah) expressed similar concerns, as well as frustration with NOAA for its failure to have "multiple backup" options in place.

Stewart emphasized the potential for NOAA to purchase more commercial services to help mitigate the gap, and pushed NOAA official Mary Kicza to closely examine commercial options.

"Most of us are much more comfortable relying on commercial [services] over a foreign government," Stewart said.

The pending gap in satellite coverage has been a slow-building and expensive problem. The latest lifecycle cost estimates for JPSS are approximately $11 billion, but that doesn't include failed efforts between NOAA, NASA and the Defense Department in the mid-2000s. Those efforts to replace joint polar orbiting satellites were finally scrapped in 2010.

"Compared to where we were 2005 to 2008, we're better, but we're still facing an inevitable gap in coverage," said Oversight Subcommittee ranking member Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.). "NOAA has to keep on track to get us satellites in orbit and working."



Kicza, assistant administrator for satellite and information service at NOAA, said the agency is "looking at several options," including making better use of data from other sources such as European and DOD satellites and ground-based measurements, and extending the lifecycle of existing satellites as much as possible.

She said NOAA is "moving out on several fronts simultaneously," including exploring partnerships with commercial satellite providers, but said the decision on whether to use data from Chinese weather satellites is not a decision only NOAA should make.

"Security concerns exist with use of Chinese data in the event of a gap," Kicza said. "NOAA believes [it should be] a whole of government decision, involving national security."

Dave Powner, director of IT management issues for GAO, said data availability concerns also exist with Chinese satellite systems. While it's true that cyberattacks from China have garnered recent attention, NOAA opting to replace a large portion of its incoming weather data with satellite data from a potential adversary carries considerable risk.

"We agree there are security concerns, but also [data] availability concerns," said Powner.

Such concerns include China simply cutting the satellite data it makes available to the World Meteorological Organization – and thus other countries or organizations – or even spoofing data, as Eric Webster, vice president and director of weather systems at ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems told FCW in an interview for a previous story.

Spoofed satellite data could be a major concern because the Defense Department uses weather data from NOAA in positioning its spy satellites. In recent years, China has launched its own spy satellites and relies on the same kind of weather data to position them.

"It is kind of a house of cards built on sand. They [Americans and Europeans] are all relying on each other in a sense to ensure data is robust and timely," Webster told FCW. "Fewer satellites mean data is older or doesn't refresh as quickly. If there comes a time when the Air Force needs cloud forecasts, China would know exactly when and why and where the data is and what the U.S. military wants to use it for."

Over the next few months, NOAA will continue developing plans to mitigate the potential loss of weather satellite data per GAO recommendations made in a report released Sept. 19.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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