New study calls for ‘national dialogue’ on future environmental satellites

Space

The Aerospace study says a discussion on weather satellite investments could be elevated to White House-level bodies like USGEO and ICAMS

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is poised to make large investments in environmental monitoring satellites but these efforts are not well coordinated across agencies that acquire these systems and the users of data collected by weather satellites, says a new report by the Aerospace Corp. published June 8.

Weather satellites procured by the Defense Department and the Commerce Department are critical assets that provide meteorological data to numerous national and international organizations. Both agencies are in the process of transitioning to new systems, which creates a window of opportunity to have a “national dialogue” about these programs, says the study by the Aerospace Center for Space Policy and Strategy.

Environmental satellites are acquired by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Defense Department. DoD and NOAA share data and coordinate investments but their plans should be more broadly discussed at a higher level, says Timothy Hall, Aerospace’s director of environmental civil space programs and a co-author of the study.

Plans for future weather satellite programs could be discussed and coordinated at White House-level bodies like the United States Group on Earth Observations (USGEO) and the Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services (ICAMS), says the study.

“There can be a richer dialogue, and that was the motivation behind this paper,” Hall tells SpaceNews.

Thomas Adang, principal engineer at Aerospace’s civil systems group and co-author of the report, says environmental satellite investments should be discussed with groups like USGEO and ICAMS so NOAA and DoD can gain a deeper understanding of the needs of users of weather data. 

Once launched, weather satellites are in place for decades, Adang says. “How do we make sure we have good dialogue, cooperation and feedback from those who have been using the old data, and will use the new data?” There has to be better communication between the developers and the users, says Adang.

NOAA and DoD are pursuing an “almost a once-in-a-generation process to look at what comes next in the next 20 or 30 years” in space-based environmental monitoring, Hall says. “They’re at an inflection point and there’s this great opportunity to combine what’s going on in the commercial sector, particularly the innovation with small satellites and technology that is enabling new business models.”

The conversation should be “broader than just a NOAA-DoD thing,” Hall said. 

The study says this issue has national security implications as China continues to invest in weather satellites. “If we do not develop a more coordinated U.S. governmentwide approach to developing capabilities, the United States could find itself at an international disadvantage,” says the report. “In particular, China is planning to fill potential capability gaps traditionally provided by U.S. assets, putting both the U.S. and allies into the position of relying on an adversary for critical weather data.”

Agencies share responsibilities 

The study points out that NOAA, NASA and DoD more than 20 years ago embarked on a joint effort to acquire the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) to support civilian and military agencies. NPOESS was an ambitious attempt to bring the agencies under one program but it got too complex and expensive. NPOESS collapsed in 2010 and since then NOAA and DoD have pursued separate paths.

DoD, NOAA and Europe’s Eumetsat today fly satellites in three orbits that pass over Earth’s polar regions and overfly points on Earth at the same local time each day. The weather community uses data collected in the three orbits commonly referred to as “early morning,” “mid-morning” and “afternoon.” 

After NPOESS broke up, DoD got the responsibility for covering the early morning orbit, Eumetsat the mid-morning orbit and NOAA the afternoon orbit. The three-orbit architecture provides satellite cloud imagery coverage over every point on the Earth at least every four hours.

The Aerospace study notes that the DoD satellites that cover the morning orbit — the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) — are aging and at risk of failing. “Cloud imaging instruments continue to function,” the report says. But DMSP’s atmospheric sounding capabilities have failed.

The study says China is poised to insert satellites into nearby orbits and share the data with U.S. allies and adversaries, “filling a gap that could exist for the U.S. and its international partners when DMSP end-of-life is reached.”

As DMSP satellites reach the end of their service life, “international entities are aware of the gap in the early morning LEO [low Earth orbit] sounding coverage and are considering non-U.S. alternatives,” says the report. 

Urged by the World Meteorological Organization, China is on track to launch imagery, sounding and space weather instruments into the early morning orbit in 2021, says Aerospace. “There is a possibility that China will offer the only available early morning sounding data for global weather modeling in the 2024 to 2027 timeframe.”

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