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Private weather data should not replace basic research

Earth-monitoring research missions should go on, despite commercial ventures  

It’s more than two decades since a team of US scientists proved that signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites could be used to gather atmospheric temperature data. The technique, known as radio occultation, depends on precise measurements of delays in the radio signals as they pass through the atmosphere. The first mission, GPS Meteorology, paved the way for the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-1) in 2006. Radio-occultation data from COSMIC-1 and a handful of follow-on missions have been integrated into government forecasting systems around the globe, and now a trio of private companies is vying to get into the game.

As a result, recent years have seen tension between researchers at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, who want to continue advancing the science of radio occultation, and technology-savvy entrepreneurs, who say they can push the field forward more quickly and cheaply — while making a profit. All parties say that they are marching towards the same goal — to provide high-quality data that could improve weather forecasts. But behind the scenes, both sides have accused the other of sabotage and turf wars. The debate has been counter-productive.

As we discuss this week, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued contracts last September to two of the companies as part of a pilot programme to evaluate the commercial data — Spire Global in Glasgow, UK, and GeoOptics in Pasadena, California. Spire already operates 16 or so miniature ‘cube satellites’ and sends more up each month. GeoOptics hopes to get its first satellites into space later this year. A third company, PlanetiQ, based in Boulder, will follow next year.

In parallel, scientists at UCAR are pushing forward with the first half of COSMIC-2, which consists of six small satellites that are scheduled for launch into tropical orbits in September. With an estimated price of US$420 million, COSMIC-2 is a partnership between the US and Taiwanese governments designed to test the limits, and utility, of high-quality radio-occultation measurements. But the US Congress has only funded the first half of the project. A second constellation of satellites that would orbit the poles, and ensure global coverage, has languished.

NOAA is under considerable pressure from Congress, and particularly from Republicans, to cut costs and allow the fledgling industry to take flight. The theory is basically sound. This is a time-tested recipe for technological development, but there are potential pitfalls when it comes to data collection and basic science.

Governments must ensure that data that come from private parties are freely available.”

First, it only works if governments fund the basic research in the first place. Radio occultation itself is evidence of this: researchers began thinking about using the technique in the context of weather in the late 1980s; only now, with prices falling for both microelectronics and access to space, are companies moving into the market. PlanetiQ argues its spacecraft will provide measurements of the same quality as COSMIC-2, but only time will tell. In the meantime, governments will have to make do with half of the data, meaning that science — and weather forecasts — may suffer.

Second, governments must ensure that the data that come from private parties are freely available. On this point, the news is good. NOAA has suggested that a World Meteorological Organization resolution requires precisely that. For their part, the companies say that they would sell all of the data to NOAA or market them independently to government forecasting agencies around the world, thus sharing the burden. Importantly, they have stated that they will ensure that their data are available to the scientific community for free.

US researchers must identify their priorities and look for ways to be more efficient; the ongoing Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space is an effort to do just that. But policymakers must also do their homework and listen to scientists. Privatization is no substitute for basic science. 

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Private weather data should not replace basic research. Nature 542, 5–6 (2017).

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