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NOAA sees 3D wind data filling critical gap in weather forecasting models

By Warren Ferster
 
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – U.S. weather forecasting officials are eager to incorporate new satellite data sets into their ever-evolving prediction models, and 3D atmospheric wind measurements are high on the priority list.
 
The ability to directly detect precise global 3D winds throughout the atmosphere from space has been a “holy grail” of sorts for atmospheric scientists for years, said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for satellite and information services at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the nation’s weather agency. This information will help scientists better understand the dynamics of the atmosphere, which is critical to weather forecasting.


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At the Space Symposium, Sara Tucker presents on how Ball is developing technology to address NOAA's need for tropospheric wind measurements.
 
But measuring wind from space is notoriously challenging, according to acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs, who along with Volz met with reporters here April 10 after a panel discussion on agency activities at the 35th Space Symposium. “We can do it from the surface of the ocean, we can do it from cloud tops, but in clear air, it’s really, really hard,” he said, adding that 3D wind represents a “huge data gap” for weather forecasters.
 
NOAA operates sophisticated weather-monitoring satellites in geostationary and polar orbits, but relies on research agencies, including NASA and international partners, for measurements that are still considered experimental. These include 3D winds, which can be detected using a certain type of light detection and ranging, or Lidar, sensor.
 
“We do not have a budget in NOAA for developing and deploying research missions, but we are looking very actively to exploit research missions for NOAA operational applications,” Volz said.
 
Volz noted that 3D wind was singled out as a priority “of high benefit to NOAA” in the U.S. National Research Council’s most recent Earth science decadal survey, which came out in January 2018. These independent decadal surveys are used to set NASA’s priorities in Earth, space and planetary science. However, a flight mission was not selected at that time.
 
In the near term, NOAA is working with the European Space Agency to leverage data from the latter’s Aeolus mission, which launched in August on a three-year mission to collect global wind data using a Lidar sensor. Another strong possibility for future research missions is with NASA, which for years has been experimenting with Lidar sensors for a variety of applications, including wind detection.
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Together with grant funding from NASA, Ball has designed, built and validated multiple versions of the OAWL system, including the ATHENA-OAWL Airborne Demonstrator.

Ball Aerospace has long been a close working partner with NASA on Lidar sensor development. On the joint NASA-French Space Agency CALIPSO mission, for example, Ball was responsible for the main sensor, the communications equipment and payload integration. CALIPSO launched in 2006 and is still collecting 3D measurements of clouds and atmospheric aerosols to better understand key elements of atmospheric dynamics.
 
Currently the company is working on a sensor to directly detect 3D winds throughout the atmosphere, in both cloud and cloud-free areas, called Optical Autocovariance Wind Lidar, or OAWL, variants of which have been successfully tested on NASA research aircraft. For example, Ball is working with NASA and NOAA partners to try to provide OAWL wind measurements from aircraft for more regional weather observations and continue to mature models.
 
The next step for the OAWL sensor is a space-based demonstration, although none is planned at the moment.
 
“Ball has supported our academic and national lab mission partners in submitting proposals to NASA’s Earth Venture line for an OAWL-based U.S. wind lidar mission,” said Dr. Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager, Civil Space, Ball Aerospace. “The technology is mature and ready for a space-based mission - thanks in part to the strong technical heritage the OAWL approach has in the CALIPSO lidar, and just needs the funding and timing to come together.”
 
So for now, NOAA plans to rely on ESA’s space-based Aeolus mission to determine the value of the atmospheric wind data on its forecasting models, Volz said. In general, the agency is trying to be more proactive in integrating new data into its models, the idea being to leverage research missions almost as soon as they begin operations, he said.  There is currently no plan at ESA to develop a follow-on mission to Aeolus.
 
On the operational side, data from the newest addition to NOAA’s polar-orbiting operational satellite fleet, NOAA-20, which launched in November 2017, are an important contributor to weather models. Formerly known as the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 (JPSS-1), NOAA-20 is the second in a new generation of polar-orbit spacecraft built by Ball. Observations of ozone contribute vital information for National Weather Service UV Index forecasts. Sensors on NOAA-20 are also providing ozone monitoring data that help the US comply with the Montreal Protocol by providing observations on the health of the stratospheric ozone layer that surrounds the Earth.  
 
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Known as JPSS-1 while under development at Ball, NOAA-20 launched in late 2017 and is the most advanced satellite NOAA has ever flown in a polar orbit.

NOAA is looking forward to leveraging data from another operational satellite under development at Ball, this one for the U.S. Air Force. Ball is under contract to build two Weather System Follow-on–Microwave (WSF) forecasting satellites, plus their sensors, for the Air Force. The Ball-designed WSF system is designed to fill two critical Department of Defense space-based environmental monitoring data gaps: ocean surface vector winds and tropical cyclone intensity, which will enable more accurate weather forecasting. The system will also mitigate sea ice characterization, soil moisture and snow depth gaps.
 
In a wide-ranging panel discussion focused primarily on NOAA’s transition to more flexible models that can be more easily accessed by users, Volz said the WSF will effectively become part of the agency’s operational constellation.  “It provides a number of critical products for us in terms of cloud and rainfall, and also ice mapping in the Arctic and the like, and we’ve been working with the Air Force on a very close basis to make sure that the data they provide fits into our models and is interoperable with our data sets as well,” Volz said.
 
NOAA and the Air Force have a long history of close collaboration on monitoring the physical environment, and not just the variety here on Earth. WSF will carry a government-furnished space weather sensor, and NOAA expects to make use of that data as well. Space weather, in the form of charged particles emanating from the sun, is of keen interest because of its potential to disrupt sensitive electronic systems, notably including satellites.
 
Elsayed Talaat, director of the Office of Planning, Projects and Analysis (OPPA) in NOAA’s satellite division, said the agency is compiling a database of space weather information collected by satellites carrying the appropriate sensors and sharing it with other agencies, including the Air Force. This information will, among other things, help investigators determine whether a satellite anomaly was caused by a solar flare event or an internal component issue, he said.
 
Overall, having access to critical weather data is essential to enable accurate weather forecasting. Weather satellites on orbit are provided key information, but there is even more opportunity to learn about weather on earth once 3D wind lidar data becomes available. ESA’s Aeolus mission is already providing key information on atmospheric wind data, but it is only a three-year mission, and there are no follow-on missions planned.
 
Warren Ferster covered the global space industry as a journalist for 25 years, including 21 at SpaceNews, where he last served as editor in chief.