Written Evidence Submitted by the Met Office

(SPA0058)

Introduction

The Met Office welcomes the launch of your call for evidence on the UK’s space strategy and satellite infrastructure and we are responding in our role as the UK’s National Meteorological Service and the organisation responsible for the delivery of services to mitigate against space weather impacts. 

As a Public Sector Research Establishment and an Executive Agency of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), we are responsible for monitoring and forecasting the weather and run the Met Office Hadley Centre, which provides climate science and services to help people and organisations understand and prepare for climate change. These weather and climate services rely on the use of satellite based Earth observations. In addition, we are responsible for providing the UK’s space weather monitoring and forecasting service through the Met Office Space Weather Operations Centre (MOSWOC). This provides 24/7 forecasts and warnings for Government, responders, critical national infrastructure providers and the public. Space and satellites are important to these Met Office activities, as such the Met Office represents the UK in a range of international organisations involved in the commissioning and operation of meteorological satellites.

In addition to regular engagement with BEIS and the UK Space Agency on a range of UK space interests; the Met Office have provided input to both the Severe Space Weather Preparedness Strategy and UK Space Strategy currently in development.

Our response to this inquiry will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base, especially in the areas of weather forecasting and Earth observations for climate change.

 

The importance of the space sector for weather and climate science and services

Observations are critically important to weather forecasting, they anchor the initial conditions in the numerical model to the current state of the atmosphere, and provide a baseline for validating the accuracy of the model predictions. The global meteorological observing system is diverse, and combines ‘in situ’ observations from the land and ocean surface, aircraft and balloons, with remotely sensed observations, including from satellites.

Satellites gather large quantities of global data representing the current state of the atmosphere, which is assimilated into weather forecasting models. Satellite imagery is also used by meteorologists to track the progress of weather systems and validate the predictions of the computer model. The Met Office four-day forecast is now as accurate as our one-day forecast was in 1980, and developments in satellite data can be credited with a large amount of that improvement. Satellites account for 76% of the observational contribution to the accuracy for a 24-hour global forecast (as illustrated in the figure below). Over a quarter of that benefit comes from the UK’s joint investment in the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) Polar System (EPS) missions; missions by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also provide a significant benefit, in addition to other Geostationary (GEO), Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and Radio-Occultation (RO) missions:

 

Weather forecasting depends upon well-calibrated and accurate observations of the Earth. The monitoring of our changing climate has similar dependencies, so Earth observations from weather satellites also make a very large contribution to our knowledge and understanding of climate change; not least because of their ongoing operational funding and the multi-decadal perspective that they provide.

Alongside provision of weather-related variables, satellites are key to providing information about the wider Earth system, e.g. the biosphere (natural and agricultural vegetation, ocean phytoplankton) and biogeochemical components of the atmosphere such as aerosols and greenhouse gases. Although measurements made in situ on the ground, in the ocean or in the air are absolutely fundamental to understanding the climate system (and some components cannot be measured from space), satellites provide an opportunity to monitor many aspects of it globally and in greater detail. Key indicators of climate change such as sea level rise, ice sheet loss and sea ice cover changes cannot be measured without satellites.

As well as providing information essential to monitoring the state of the climate, satellites provide information critical to evaluating the skill of our climate models. By checking simulations of current and past climate and Earth system states against satellite data, we build confidence in our projections of future climate change and also understand areas where more development is needed to be able to provide information useful for climate mitigation policy and adaptation planning.

Met Office seasonal and decadal forecasts also rely on information from satellites to provide the atmosphere and ocean states needed to make accurate predictions for the UK and Europe.

Resilience of satellite systems and data

Passive remote sensing instruments operating on Earth observation satellites are looking down at the Earth’s surface and atmosphere and are susceptible to interference from transmitters operating on or near the surface of the Earth. These highly-sensitive receivers are payloads on satellites placed in low Earth orbit and only operate successfully due to the allocation of certain frequency bands and due to the regulatory protections afforded to them by provisions of the International Telecommunications Union Radio Regulations. 

For the purposes of weather forecasting models, passive microwave sensors are essential to support services, critical to safety of life and property. Frequency bands for these passive sensors are determined based on the fundamental properties of the Earth and its atmosphere. No amount of engineering and funding can change these properties which are fixed by the laws of physics. For such reason, these bands have always been protected, as they are a unique natural resource. 

Degradation of the available satellite observations in the microwave bands, will have a large direct negative economic impact for countries worldwide affecting a vast range of sectors and businesses. The Met Office works with Ofcom and DCMS to ensure that the UK’s interests in these frequency bands retain the necessary regulatory provisions.

Provision of operational services requires that every link in the chain has a high level of reliability. The EUMETSAT satellites which provide our core data are designed with built-in redundancy in their subsystems. Geostationary satellites have a permanently operating ‘hot spare’ satellite in orbit, ready to take over at short notice. Since polar orbiting satellites are by definition global, agreements between operators of other agencies underpin their resilience. Launches are planned a long way in advance, and programmes are organised so that if a launch fails, the next satellite in the series can be ready for launch within 12-18 months.

The ground segment is designed to have resilience both for telemetry/control and also data reception and onward distribution to users. Geostationary satellites have multiple ground stations to avoid outage due to weather, maintenance, or failure.

The Met Office HQ site in Exeter hosts reception systems for both geostationary and polar satellites. Both systems are duplicated, with separate power supplies, communications channels and link into separate IT halls for processing so services can be delivered from one IT hall if the other was to fail.

Future requirements

Investment in space-based observation should always go hand-in-hand with investment in “ground-truth” measurements to ensure adequate calibration and validation of satellite Earth Observations used to initialise weather forecast models and underpin UK climate policy. Participation of Met Office scientists in expert groups for European Space Agency (ESA) Research and Development missions enables the UK to participate in calibration and validation activities for new missions. However, insufficient investment is made by stakeholders in industry, academia and government in the ground-truthing measurements required to fully understand the performance of the satellite data. Lack of ground-truth observations is particularly notable in the most fragile, poorly-observed regions of the world such as the Poles and Africa where satellite data are most essential. Such ground-truthing observations are distinct from and in addition to the long-running measurements made at weather stations, for example, and need to be designed specifically for this purpose.

Infrastructure and expertise to enable wider use of satellite data for climate action and climate services is needed, including for repackaging and provision of guidance to enable non-technical users or people with less-developed infrastructure to access the information. Faster supply chains are needed to supply Earth Observation data to support climate service provision and ongoing monitoring of the planet.

More investment in the interface between satellite observations and climate modellers will help to better pull-through the wealth of satellite data into use in evaluating Earth System models. This requires more people to be trained in understanding how the satellite-based Earth Observations are produced and how they relate to and can be used effectively to evaluate Earth System model output and then supported to undertake evaluation work. The ESA Climate Change Initiative (which the UK is a major contributor to) has demonstrated the benefits of enhanced knowledge of satellite-based Earth Observations for the evaluation of Earth System models: which are fundamental to the science which underpins development of UK climate policy.

Space weather

Space weather events driven through activity on the Sun can result in sudden and dramatic changes to the operating environment around our planet which can lead to spacecraft damage, orbital decay, service signal disruption or denial, together with ground segment impacts to electronic components and power grids. For spacecraft operators, those relying on access to space for research or to provide services, understanding of the state of the operating environment and changes to this are essential.

The Met Office delivers the national 24/7/365 space weather capability which monitors solar activity and provides a range of forecasts, warnings and alerts to support the UK space sector and Critical National Infrastructure. These services are world leading and continue to develop as scientific understanding grows alongside knowledge of the scale of likely impacts to modern technologies.

Future requirements

Delivery of safety critical support to the UK’s space sector through developments such as a sovereign conjunction warning service and spaceport launch operations, will have a critical dependency on space weather information and it is important that such dependencies are recognised.

Today there are not enough measurements in space to enable a comprehensive understanding of this operating environment. For example, there are currently very few measurements of radiation from satellites in low or medium Earth orbits. There is work going on through the SPF Space Weather Innovation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk (SWIMMR) Programme, which will develop a new miniaturised radiation sensor which could be flown on many small satellites, although there is currently no specific funding to support instrument integration and flight. Collaboration between industry, Government and international partners could improve this situation, through incentivising operators to carry environmental monitors and hosted space weather payloads. Such promotion would benefit operators, science, service providers and ultimately enhance national resilience. 

To support the UK’s goal to be a global leader in space, it is vital to ensure that industry and Government understand the nature of the space environment and the natural hazards that can threaten our interests, freedom to operate and security in this domain. Promotion of the safe use of space by Government and uptake by industry will underpin the success of the UK as a world leader in setting standards for the sustainable use of space.

Space weather is a global issue that does not recognise national boundaries and therefore international collaboration is important. There are many established international relationships, for example with National Aeronautics and Space Administration, US (NASA), ESA and other national space agencies or programmes, forged through the national space weather capability which can provide leverage and catalyse opportunities for the UK science and engineering community.

International partnerships

Global coordination of meteorological observations is achieved through the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), facilitating free and open data for all users. The UK is one of 193 Members and representation is delegated by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to the Met Office. Our Chief Executive is the UK’s Permanent Representative to the WMO and is part of the WMO Executive Council.

WMO coordination is supplemented by cooperation agreements between meteorological satellite operators such as EUMETSAT. Through these, EUMETSAT secures its Member States full access to data from satellites operated by US, Japan, China, Canada, India, Russia and Korea.

The Met Office leads the UK funding and representation to EUMETSAT, an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to the provision of satellite data for weather, climate and oceans. The core mission of EUMETSAT is provision of meteorological observations from Meteosat satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), and Metop satellites in a polar low-Earth orbit (LEO). The satellite imagery and data secured through our membership of EUMETSAT are critical to the provision of Met Office services to the public, civil aviation, defence customers and beyond.

EUMETSAT makes use of the ESA for R&D of its satellites: ESA funds the development of the first satellite of each series, while EUMETSAT funds the duplicate satellites, their launches, operations and ground segment. As new capabilities are developed by ESA, these core programmes will be supplemented with new missions. The Met Office works with the UK Space Agency to ensure coordination of ESA and EUMETSAT representation.

EUMETSAT is one of the Entrusted Entities, operating four Sentinel missions on behalf of the European Commission (EC) Copernicus Programme. Sentinel-3 is a fully EC-funded mission. Sentinels -4 and -5 are fulfilled by instruments embarked on EUMETSAT satellites. Sentinel-6 is a unique partnership between Europe and the USA, with EUMETSAT funding a share. The UK’s contribution to this EUMETSAT programme is funded by the UK Space Agency in recognition of the cross-Government user base for this satellite.

More broadly, the UK has been a partner in the EUs Copernicus programme, and intends to associate to the programme under the 2021-2027 Multi-annual Financial Framework. The Met Office benefits from access to Copernicus satellite data of the land, ocean and atmosphere to assist in our weather and marine forecasting, and notably climate monitoring and prediction activities. Copernicus satellite data complements the majority data which the Met Office receives from EUMETSAT and other global weather satellite missions. Future access to existing and planned Copernicus satellite missions will be beneficial to the Met Office. The free and open data policy of the Copernicus programme is very important to allow this to happen.

The Met Office is an active participant in the EUMETSAT Satellite Application Facility (SAF) network, a network of centres of excellence for processing satellite data. We lead the consortium for the Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP) SAF, and are part of the consortium for the Climate and Radio Occultation Meteorology SAFs.

Participation of Met Office scientists in expert groups for ESA Research and Development missions enables the UK to influence the specification of future operational missions, and participation in calibration and validation activities for new missions enables us to ready ourselves to make prompt use of new data streams once new missions are launched.

The ESA Climate Change Initiative also provides an opportunity for us to help steer development of satellite-derived climate data records of Essential Climate Variables, which are key indicators of climate change. The UK is a major contributor to this programme. As partners in several of the components of the programme, the UK’s contribution of expertise in Earth Observation and in climate modelling plays a leading role in the ability of the programme to provide information that underpins UK Government policy on climate change, including our commitment to achieving Net Zero emissions by 2050. In order to ensure the continued pull-through of UK skills and expertise and provision of needed data, the UK should continue to be a major contributor to this programme.

For space weather, the UK has a critical dependency on the US for vital space-based monitoring and observations. This is in-part being addressed through the UK’s lead funding of the ESA Lagrange mission which is vital to maintain and improve current forecasting capability. However, it is also important that the UK works in partnership with the US, for instance through providing instruments for specific missions, to ensure continued access to US data and also to influence US future plans.

 

Defence

The Met Office currently delivers a range of defence space weather products that are funded directly by Ministry of Defence (MOD). These broadly cover the likelihood of space weather events leading to an impact on GPS/GNSS and communications utilised for both terrestrial and satellite capabilities together with a review of recent space weather events.

MODs reliance on satellites and systems in the Space environment are essential in navigation and targeting aspects, its dependency stretches across the mission success value and deeply into the safety of life area – underpinning UK National Security. Reliance on such systems is expanding to include the use of remote and autonomous capabilities, on which future warfare through military tactical advantage will increasingly rely. It is essential that uninterrupted provision of such services is maintained and that access to the space environment to exploit such technology is prioritised.

This increasing reliance is reflected by the creation of UK Space Command and we anticipate working closely with our MOD customer to identify the ways in which Met Office can expand its support, advice and training across the Space Weather domain. We readily collaborate with our MOD partners at Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) to identify meteorological requirements for future capabilities, systems and software across the defence battlespace and we anticipate this will expand further in the space weather domain.

The demand for understanding within the Space environment is expected to generate a broad range of space weather requests in the coming years and it is imperative that those requirements are coordinated across Government departments and agencies, and the UK’s international defence partnerships to ensure consistency and efficiency of the development of the required infrastructure and capabilities.

The Met Office has a strategic and broad-based collaborative relationship with the US Air Force (USAF) which includes the sharing and co-development of defence-related capabilities. Space weather is included in this suite of science and technology areas of interest. The lead agency for defence space environment activity in the United States is USAF and therefore the UK gaining access to American expertise and systems that form part of the US military space weather infrastructure is highly beneficial and is part of the international engagement through the Met Office. Maintaining this defence engagement is a key part of the National Space Weather Preparedness Strategy and is increasingly linking into our relationship with the defence / national meteorological service environment in other nations such as Australia.

 

Opportunities and risks posed by commercialisation of the space sector

Meteorological satellites have historically been funded by national governments, or groupings of governments such as EUMETSAT. Following the precedent set by meteorologists in the 19th century, and the data policy expectations described by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), these datasets have been shared among the world’s national meteorological services for mutual benefit.

The vast majority of funding into EUMETSAT and ESA for meteorological satellites finds its way to the private sector through contracts for the build of space hardware, ground segment equipment and support service contracts. It is the ownership of the space assets which allows data policy to be managed consistently with global meteorological rules and conventions.

The accessibility of space and the pace of technological development as characterised by ‘New Space’ has brought meteorological satellites into the reach of the private sector. This allows for innovative new technologies to be put into operations more rapidly and flexibly and may help to evolve the global observing system. However, commercial satellite operators need a marketplace for their data, by necessity needing to restrict access to those who pay for it. National Meteorological Services such as the Met Office must take care to ensure this is consistent with the global coordination through WMO, which obliges us to share as much meteorological data as possible for public good and safety of life purposes. Caution is therefore needed to ensure that opportunities offered by the private sector do not lead to detrimental impacts on the global community, particularly developing nations.

 

(June 2021)