The collection of weather and environmental data via satellites, which is enormously important to forecasting and monitoring, has reached a critical crossroads. Traditionally, the government and taxpayers have borne the entire burden of funding and managing the development, launch and daily operations of these vital satellites. While in the past the government has had to maintain this role by necessity, viable commercial partners now stand ready to facilitate the transition from a government-led activity to a public-private partnership.
The benefits of commercialization through public-private partnerships are already well established in the areas of satellite telecommunications, satellite imagery and space transportation, and the collection of weather and environmental data by satellite is well positioned to follow a similar path. The timing for such a transition could not be better given the growing demand for such data and the problems that have plagued U.S. weather satellite programs.
As satellites currently in orbit continue to age and approach the end of their operational lifetimes, replacements remain behind schedule, over-budget and insufficient to meet the existing and future demands of weather forecasting and environmental monitoring. A gap in data critical to accurate forecasts and early warnings is expected in the next few years, and with governments facing increasingly tight budgets and competing priorities, more gaps are likely in the decades to come under a business-as-usual scenario.
The private sector is now poised to partner with governments to implement a new commercial model for weather and environmental satellite data. By leveraging private funds to fly new satellite systems quickly and at lower cost, with less risk to governments worldwide, public and private stakeholders can work together to sustain and increase collection of the data required to protect lives, property and economies.
A public-private partnership model for weather and environmental satellite data provides numerous benefits for government, end users and taxpayers…
Benefits to Government
While some functions are inherently governmental, others don’t have to be. When demand for satellite imagery began to outpace supply about 10 years ago, the U.S. government partnered with the private sector to create a commercial industry for satellite imagery that grew to support government and commercial needs worldwide. A similar model for weather and environmental satellite data would have the following benefits:
- Leverages private capital when government budgets for large-scale projects are tight. Spacecraft development and launch are privately funded, with no up-front costs or deployment risk for the government, which pays only upon delivery of data.
- Spreads costs among public and private customers worldwide, resulting in substantially lower long-term costs for customers. Subscription model provides governments with budgeting certainty and allows agencies to pay for only the data they need.
- Shifts the burden of satellite development, launch and operations to the private sector, freeing up government resources needed for science, research, and other core missions such as improved weather and climate modeling.
- Fosters healthy competition, incentivizing multiple companies to deliver the highest quality data at the lowest cost and soonest.
- Disaggregates sensors from traditionally large and expensive government “catch-all” systems to multiple smaller and more cost-effective satellites, reducing the risk associated with any one sensor or satellite, and limiting the impact of launch failures and in-orbit mishaps.
- Allows new and emerging technologies to make it to orbit for evaluation much faster than is typically possible with government systems and procurements.
Benefits to End Users
Numerous setbacks in government satellite programs have handicapped the weather forecasting and environmental monitoring communities, creating the likelihood of significant gaps in data critical to accurate forecasts and early warnings required by governments and numerous private industries for preparedness and response. A public-private partnership in which government supports a vibrant commercial sector for weather and environmental data would have the following benefits:
- Mitigates the developing gap in critical data and helps avoid future gaps. More sources for data helps sustain the long-term supply of data that is vital to forecast accuracy.
- Allows government to devote more resources to improving the forecast models that use the data as input, and which forecasters heavily rely on for guidance.
- Data supply is less susceptible to funding shortages, committee decisions, the slow movement of government and geopolitical dynamics.
- Science and technology innovations are transferred more quickly into operational spacecraft and sensors, improving the impact of data and spawning derivative products and applications.
Benefits to Taxpayers
The traditional approach of government-led satellite programs subjects taxpayers to undue risk. A public-private partnership in the collection and delivery of weather and environmental data would have the following benefits:
- Competition among multiple commercial providers lowers the total cost of the data.
- Lowers financial risk since the government only pays upon delivery of data. Financial risks associated with satellite development and launch are transferred from government to the private sector.
- Creates fair sharing of costs by spreading subscription costs among data users worldwide
- Enables more efficient and effective use of precious government resources, both human and financial.