Air Force considering taking over NOAA weather satellite

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Updated Jan. 26 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern.

SEATTLE — The Air Force is considering taking over an existing geostationary orbit weather satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help fill a gap in coverage over the Indian Ocean.

In a panel discussion at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society here Jan. 24, Ralph Stoffler, director of weather for the U.S. Air Force, said that, as part of a broader cooperative agreement signed in December between the Air Force and NOAA, the Air Force could later take over operations of a spare Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) weather satellite.

That opportunity became available after the successful launch in November of the GOES-R satellite, now named GOES-16. That satellite is undergoing checkout and is scheduled to become operational later this year.

“We have a plan where potentially, now that GOES-R is up there, that GOES-14 would become DOD-1 as we try to grab that satellite and move it over to the Indian Ocean and become the first DOD geostationary weather satellite, if we have to move down that pathway,” he said.

Weather satellite coverage of the Indian Ocean region has been a challenge for the Air Force, which has relied on non-U.S. satellites, including from Europe, to provide imagery. The area had been served by Eumetsat’s Meteosat-7 satellite, which is scheduled to be retired this year. In June 2016, Eumetsat agreed to move Meteosat-8 to the region to continue to coverage when Meteosat-7 is retired.

Meteosat-8 is in a different orbital position that Meteosat-7 — 41.5 degrees east versus 57 degrees east — so its coverage of the region is not the same. Meteosat-8 is also expected to reach the end of its life in 2019, requiring the Air Force to find another satellite to cover the region in a few years.

“The Indian Ocean region has been a challenge for us,” Stoffler said, saying the Air Force appreciated Eumetsat’s decision to move Meteosat-8. “It doesn’t provide us all the coverage that we need, but I’m glad that we were able to buy that time.”

Stoffler said the Air Force was reluctant take responsibility for operating geostationary weather satellites. “Certainly it’s not our desire to get into this business, but the bottom line is we have to have assured access to this type of information,” he said.

An alternative option, he said, is to access images from Indian weather satellites in the region, provided the Air Force was confident it would always have access to that data. “That would probably be the more cost-effective solution,” he said. “But to have a U.S.-owned and controlled satellite in that part of the world, certainly from my perspective, is ideal.”

If the Air Force goes ahead with plans to take over GOES-14, Stoffler said the Air Force would not have to pay NOAA to access the satellite. However, it would bear the cost of setting up its own downlink station for the satellite in the Indian Ocean region. “We want to have this in place before Meteosat-8 expires,” he said.

Stoffler mentioned GOES-14 because that satellite, launched in 2009, is a spare, with GOES-13 operating as GOES-East and GOES-15 as GOES-West. However, a NOAA official on the panel said a final decision on what satellite to offer to the Air Force won’t be made until GOES-16 completes its commissioning late this year.

“Both the programmatic and the engineering details are in the early stages,” said Karen St. Germain, director of the Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning in NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.

“We, on the NOAA side, have not committed to any particular bird,” she said. “What we said was, when we get to the point of commissioning operationally GOES-16, we’ll then look at the constellation health and have a negotiation with the Air Force.”

In a statement to SpaceNews Jan. 26, NOAA spokesman John Leslie said that the agreement between NOAA and the Air Force is intended to “to formally establish cooperation in the area of space-based environmental monitoring data” in general between the agencies, consistent with direction provided by Congress.

“Any actual cooperative implementation agreements will be conducted under this umbrella framework,” the statement added. “No implementation agreements have yet been made.”