Fight continues for weather forecasting breakthrough

September 8th, 2017

By Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Passage of an appropriations bill by Sept. 30 supporting locally developed breakthrough weather forecasting technology would be the best case scenario for its completion.

But U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, is ready to spend three more months pushing Congress to fund the technology’s last leg of development if the additional time for that becomes available, he said.

He shared that message following a tour he took with National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials Sept. 1 to see first-hand some of the work Harris Corp. is doing in Fort Wayne building weather satellite payloads.

The breakthrough technology Banks mentioned is the radiation budget instrument that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is building for a U.S. environmental satellite that passes the north and south poles as it orbits the earth.

Local connection

In 2014, the Fort Wayne operations of Harris’ Space and Intelligence Systems segment won a $208-million contract to build the RBI for the joint polar satellite system (JPSS) payload scheduled to launch in 2021.

Under pressure to reduce spending, NASA recently sacrificed the project in its budget for next year. But in June, Banks told Robert Lightfoot Jr., NASA’s acting administrator, the RBI is important because it “will leapfrog current technology by more accurately measuring the impact of the sun’s energy on the earth and the earth’s own energy.”

Banks sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as well as its subcommittee on space. During the June NASA budget overview hearing by the space subcommittee where he spoke with Lightfoot, he asked that the decision be reconsidered.

“It’s already 80 percent complete so I think it would be a waste and a shame if it weren’t fully funded and our office will keep fighting for that,” he said after the Harris tour.

“We’ve been working closely with Harris and we’ve met with appropriators on the appropriations committee. We’ve met with senators and have worked with our two (Indiana) senators’ offices on the issue as well.”

In response to RBI questions after the tour, Stephen Volz, NOAA acting assistant secretary for environment and observation, said a radiation instrument series had been flying on NOAA satellites for years. The precursor instrument was called CERES, which stood for Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System.

CERES missions began during the 1990s. A NASA website says data from the missions could lead to “a better understanding of the role of clouds and the energy cycle in global climate change.”

During the JPSS era, that became NASA’s responsibility, even while NOAA had the instrument’s satellite platform.

“We agreed not to change the platform just because it’s not our instrument anymore and get rid of it, but to provide the footprint, provide the host for that instrument,” Volz said.

“NASA provides the instrument to us; we integrate it and fly it for them. And we both take advantage of the data, although it’s their responsibility to process the data,” he said. “It will be on the second version, JPSS-2, that’s launching in the summer of 2021.”

Why it’s important

The RBI is a scanning radiometer designed to measure how much energy from the sun stays with the Earth and its atmosphere and how much bounces back into space, according to a NASA explanation of the instrument.

Because clouds can reflect sunlight but also can trap heat and hold it against the Earth like a blanket, an important part of the RBI’s purpose is studying the role of clouds in that cycle, it said.

Continuing RBI funding would avert the loss of “opportunity for greatly increased seasonal forecasting, which will help our emergency managers and our agriculture and energy sectors, among many others,” Banks said in the space subcommittee hearing.

“Improved seasonal temperature and rainfall forecasts would help farmers across the state make better crop estimations and farm management decision,” Banks’ office said in an email. “Additionally, families would receive improved hurricane and tornado warnings, helping them to better protect their children and property. Finally, it would also enable local and state authorities to better anticipate and prepare for storm cleanup.”

What eventually happens with RBI funding is wrapped up with efforts in Congress to get a spending bill passed by Sept. 30 to avert a federal government shutdown.

“The reality, and in so many ways the disappointing reality, is that we will pass as a three-month continuing resolution to fund the government from Sept. 30 until the end of the calendar year,” Banks said after the Harris tour. “That’s terrible for a lot of reasons, but it’s really good for one reason - it gives us three more months to keep the RBI program alive so we can keep making the case.”

Local impact

In addition to the life-saving benefits of continually improving the nation’s weather forecasting technology, the Fort Wayne operations of Harris affect the state and area economies.

They spend $12.9 million each year with 229 Indiana vendors. They employ 551 with an annual payroll of $56 million. They hire 55 employees each year and 20 percent of the new college graduate hires come from Indiana colleges and universities. They have awarded $590,000 in grants to colleges and universities since 2014.

“We’ve been really fortunate here over the years to have a really good feeder mechanism with engineers from Purdue and other regional universities through STEM education, so our company’s been a big supporter of STEM education,” said Eric Webster, Harris Environmental Solutions vice president and general manager, after the tour.

Harris employees in Fort Wayne take great pride in their work and go about it every day with an awareness of how weather affects everyone’s lives, particularly extreme weather, he said. In reference to Hurricane Harvey, “we’re all heartbroken to see what’s happened in Houston and in Louisiana and in other areas, and really in the end it comes down to the public getting that forecast and actually listening to the warnings and doing what the officials say,” Webster said.

“Sometimes, as we saw, there’s confusion over that. I think as our instruments get better and the forecasts get better, we’ll be able to give people more time to make those decisions, and actually in the end again, it’s about saving lives.”

Webster ended his remarks at a news conference after the tour by expressing appreciation for support from officials at NOAA and NASA and the Indiana Congressional delegation, and particularly for the service of Banks on the committees with oversight of NOAA and NASA budget and policies.

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