Spinoff is NASA’s annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

Each year, large-scale weather events like hurricanes and blizzards cause millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses. To help prevent losses, the National Weather Service mission of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) makes observations from space to track weather events and issue the appropriate watches and warnings.

Weather satellites gather data throughout their orbits but can only send that information to Earth as they pass over a ground station. To help coordinate those transmissions, former NASA engineers created satellite scheduling software that is going to help NOAA observations get to Earth as quickly as possible, letting forecasters make better predictions that could also save lives.

With more efficient data transmission at polar downlinks, NOAA can offer use of its antennas to other organizations, helping people around the globe stay informed of potentially dangerous weather. (Photo: NASA)

In the 1990s, Ella Herz was a contractor for Rockwell at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she developed software for space shuttle mission control and her husband Alex worked on ground control systems at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. His primary project was control software for missions designed to do things like map forest health. There he met Doug George, a fellow programmer who was instrumental in these efforts.

They saw room to improve the tools used to time events like taking pictures and firing thrusters in orbit. In 2000, the three former NASA experts started Greenbelt-based Orbit Logic to develop software solutions for the growing number of satellites in orbit. Their STK Scheduler was built on their experience with space mission scheduling and ground support software. In conjunction with Systems Tool Kit (STK) — an existing commercial program that several satellite operators use — modern versions of STK Scheduler can run on everything from desktop computers to cloud systems and web servers.

While most weather-observation snapshots over wide areas of land are made from equatorial geostationary orbit, regional closeups are generally made from polar orbits. With the only locations repeated on every orbit being the North and South poles, observations are generally downlinked within these regions. As a result, it is important that scheduling software is used to ensure downlinks are coordinated at the right times to get the most out of these satellites.

Since the 1970s, NOAA has worked alongside NASA to design, build, and launch satellites. For each one, NOAA utilized whichever scheduling system was delivered at that time, which led to several, often incompatible solutions. Adopted in 2021, the Enterprise Automated Scheduling Implementation (EASI) software is NOAA’s solution to this problem, and STK Scheduler powers the whole thing. NOAA can schedule each satellite with knowledge of what the others are doing and get data down more efficiently.

In addition to helping NOAA get more data, EASI allows the agency to offer leftover bandwidth to partners in need, such as meteorologists with the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites and others, helping people around the world get a better grasp on the weather within their regions.

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