In wake of canceled DMSP launch, Air Force plans three new weather satellites

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has revamped its next-generation weather satellite program to include at least three satellites, the first of which could launch as early as next year, service leaders said Feb. 11.

But it is unclear if the new plan will appease lawmakers, who have been critical of the Air Force’s previous direction for weather satellites. Congress has been unhappy about the service’s handling of the legacy program, known as the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, and the planned next-generation program, known as the Weather Satellite Follow-on.

Last year, lawmakers canceled the launch of the last DMSP satellite,  DMSP-20, after the Air Force spent $518 million on the satellite but failed to convince Congress it was needed. In report language, lawmakers also were skeptical of the plan for the Weather Satellite Follow-on and whether its would close some of the Air Force’s highest priority data gaps.

As recently as December 2015, the Air Force said it would launch a gapfiller satellite to provide ocean surface vector wind and tropical cyclone data and then a second satellite at an undisclosed later date.

The White House’s budget request for fiscal year 2017,  which asks for $119 million for development efforts next year and $522 million through 2021, provides greater detail on how the Air Force plans to move forward.

The first satellite, previously referred to as a gapfiller and now described as a “technical demonstration” satellite, is known as the Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer, or COWVR. That satellite, to be built in conjunction with the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, could launch as early as 2017 aboard a small rocket, Air Force officials said. Air Force officials expect the ORS Office to award a launch contract for the COVWR mission later this year, budget documents said.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory built COWVR’s sensor, which improves upon the design of the Advanced Microwave Radiometer flown on the U.S./European Jason-2 and Jason-3 satellites.

The COWVR satellite is intendend to provide ocean-wind data that currently comes from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Windsat satellite, which launched in 2003 and is well beyond its expected design life.

COVWR then would “pave the way,” for the formal Weather Satellite Follow-on system, Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, director of space programs for the Air Force’s assistant secretary of acquisition, said during a Feb 11. press briefing.

“If successful, the COWVR microwave technology will inform later increments of the WSF Objective System and has the potential to significantly reduce the size, weight and power of the payload, thereby reducing the per mission cost of the system,” budget documents said.

The Air Force expects the first satellite in Weather Satellite Follow-on constellation to launch in 2022. A second satellite could launch in 2026, budget documents said.

The program is likely to face scrutiny from lawmakers.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2016, signed into law in November, authorized $56 million for the Weather Satellite Follow-on, about $20 million less than the Air Force’s request. In addition, the measure fenced off $28 million of the funding pending proof from the Pentagon that the satellite meets the military’s cloud characterization and in-theater forecasting requirements.

Neither of those weather data gaps appears to be addressed in the plan for the new system outlined by the budget documents.

In Air Force briefing slides from January, the service said cloud characterization and theater weather imagery were higher priorities but would not face a gap in coverage until 2020. A gap in ocean-wind data, the slides said, was imminent.