How weather forecasting is like war

As director of earth and space science programs for Boeing Satellite Systems Inc., Mark Spiwak is responsible for the new series of geostationary operational environmental satellites soon to be launched by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

Boeing Satellite Systems, of El Segundo, Calif., holds a top rating, Level 5, on the Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model-Integration.

Spiwak previously worked in several strategy and technology jobs at Boeing Co. and oversaw implementation of best practices for organizational accountability as chief of staff in the president's office.

He received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton and a master's from the University of Southern California.

Spiwak shares a U.S. patent for modular spacecraft support structures and, as an inventor, said he is proud of the long-running performance of solar cells from Boeing subsidiary Spectrolab Inc. on the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers.

GCN chief technology editor Susan M. Menke interviewed Spiwak at Boeing's offices in Arlington, Va.

GCN: When do the next-generation geostationary operational environmental satellites start going into service?

SPIWAK: The new constellation starts Dec. 1. It will be our 14th satellite launch for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA being the contracting agency.

Hughes Space and Communications [acquired by Boeing in 2000 and known as Boeing Satellite Services] built GOES versions D through H. There was an I through M series, and now we're back building N, O and P. They will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Boeing Satellite Services has a mix of about two-thirds government business and one-third commercial business. When some markets are down, we try to use our technologies in others, to maintain a fairly stable workforce.

GCN: What jobs do the GOES satellites have?

SPIWAK: A GOES can carry a number of different payloads. It has the Imager [built by ITT Industries Inc. of White Plains, N.Y.] that images clouds and things like volcanic ash, and can accurately predict where storms will hit and what kind of damage they might do.

There's also an ITT Sounder that samples the atmosphere for different temperatures. When you look at the Weather Channel, those are the pictures and elements you see.

The satellite also has a number of space environmental monitoring sensors that look at, for instance, solar flux bursting from the sun. Some recent ones made cell phones go out, and some satellites were hit and couldn't sustain the solar burst. Our GOES satellites did survive.

They measure what the protons and electrons are like, what the magnetic fields look like, to help the people on the International Space Station and space shuttles.

A telemetry and command subsystem orients the satellite and lets us talk to it. Then there are the payloads, and they're all at different frequencies'S band and others'so that they can multitask. That's common to most satellites. DirecTV and the Dish Network and others broadcast at different frequencies as well.

One of the most important aspects of the GOES series is communications. If you're out on a boat, you might need to keep up with NOAA's Emergency Management Weather Information Network. The satellites rebroadcast data to help people who are at sea or need to evacuate for storms.

GOES satellites have two geostationary orbit slots, at 75 degrees East and 135 degrees West. The new launches will go up into those slots to continue those services.

The N, O and P are the first GOES satellites that can orient themselves. They use a stellar inertial attitude determination system, which aligns itself with the stars and provides up to 10 times more accurate orientation to the ground.

That means you can predict where a tornado will hit within a 2-kilometer range instead of a 10-kilometer range. A lot of dollars in commerce and a lot of lives can be saved if you can say accurately where the tornado will hit'or where a fire could spread.

GCN: The first U.S. weather satellite, Tiros 1, was launched way back in 1960. How has the mission changed?

SPIWAK: With the GOES R, NOAA is revamping how it tracks and disseminates data. Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher [NOAA administrator and Commerce Department undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere] has a vision of an integrated global observation system.

IGOS would be a network-centric sensing system for satellites around the globe. It doesn't matter what you're looking at if you can't get it to the people around the world who need it most.

GCN: Can the existing GOES satellites be retrofitted to be network-centric?

SPIWAK: No, those won't be able to go global. Those only monitor from Fiji in the Pacific Ocean, all the way almost to the western part of Africa. They do big swaths over large portions of North and South America and the surrounding oceans [but not the rest of the world].

So Lautenbacher couldn't use those globally, but his vision is to work with some Asian governments'South Korea and Japan'on their next-generation systems. How could they be networked to provide data products globally?

We hope to use our network-centric capability that we've been developing on the Defense Department side. It's similar to fighting a war'you want to get the information to the guy in Baghdad, you want to send the information to the guy in a rowboat on the Chesapeake Bay. It's kind of exciting. It's why I like this business.

GCN: How does NOAA negotiate about the satellites with the other governments?

SPIWAK: They have their own weather plans. What Lautenbacher is trying to do is develop a sense of urgency to build up their systems so they could become interactive.

A number of other countries came to a summit in July 2003 in Washington, where they talked about this global information system and what different countries have planned.

It's starting off slow. For example, India would love to come in but doesn't have the funds yet to position itself to support this vision.

Satellite missions will stay primarily the same'storm tracking, floods, fires and so on. What's going into the next generation is more advanced ways of handling all that.

At a GOES R conference recently, we saw some images of fire and smoke. You couldn't see anything underneath the smoke. But if you looked on the infrared bands on other channels, you could see exactly where the fire was. That means better visibility, better lead times for commerce and farming ‘how much chemical will be needed to grow certain kinds of crops, for instance.

If we could more accurately predict the winds and know when planes can take off and land, air commerce and airlines could save like $1 billion a year. If we could more accurately predict where a big storm will hit a coast, I've heard an estimate of savings to commerce of $1 million per mile of coastline.

GCN: How many satellites are there in all? What happens when they die'do they get blown up or just spiral down?

SPIWAK: There are a lot of different de-orbiting schemes depending on what authority you have from the International Telecommunications Union.

The number of satellites 'that's a question the Air Force should answer because it does the orbit tracking. I've heard a figure of 260 commercial satellites globally, for telecommunications, TV broadcasting, everything.

GCN: How much data flows in and out of GOES satellites?

SPIWAK: A GOES sends down its data for processing to a NOAA ground station in Wallops Island, Va., and then to the satellite operations center in Suitland, Md.

NOAA processes the raw data and then sends it back up to the satellite to rebroadcast to users. The raw data comes down, the ground stations put it all together and send it back up, and then meteorologists and others can get the results.

There's a lot going on simultaneously in a satellite. There's the raw data, the rebroadcast data, the emergency signals from ships and personal locator beacons and so forth'all that is part of the concept of operations that NOAA helps us as the contractor figure out at the beginning. What systems should be operating at what times of day, what times of year? It varies.

GCN: How many people does it take to keep all this data flowing in the right directions?

SPIWAK: A lot of them, on the NOAA side. There's a lot of people behind the curtain.


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