NOAA’s future constellation: large and small satellites in variety of orbits

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AUSTIN, Texas – In the future, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration may rely on a mix of large government owned and operated satellites, imaging instruments hosted on commercial satellites, small satellites in low Earth orbit and data purchased from commercial firms.

That was one of the key findings of an extensive quantitative analysis NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service performed over the last two years to identify ways to create an increasingly capable and resilient space-based architecture in light of budget constraints.

The NOAA Satellite Observing System Architecture (NSOSA) study evaluated about 100 possible constellations, ranging from continuing its existing model of relying almost exclusively on a handful of large government owned and operated satellites to radical alternatives with swarms of small satellites.

“We didn’t find a compelling cost-benefit case to go to those radical alternatives but we did find there were some hybrid approaches we should seriously consider,” Karen St. Germain, systems architecture and advanced planning director for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said Jan. 10 at the American Meteorological Society meeting here.

St. Germain and Steve Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Services, were quick to point out that even though the NSOSA study highlighted benefits to this hybrid approach, the agency will continue to work within the government and with industry and academia to find answers to questions the study raised.

“What does it mean to have a hosted payload feeding data through our operational chain? How do we task that payload?” St. Germain asked. “Buying some of these new observations would mean giving up some older observations. Is that a good idea?”

The study is simply a starting point as NOAA looks beyond its Joint Polar Satellite System and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites toward its constellation of the 2030s and 2040s.

“This is not truth. This is information,” Volz said in an interview. “How do we sift through it and figure out how to turn it into a viable program with understanding of all the balances and inputs and influences that are required to make this supportable is our next step.”

Still, the NSOSA study is important because a lot of the background discussion at AMS, particularly around the panels focused on the Joint Polar Satellite System and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, revolves around whether NOAA will purchase more of those satellites or follow the same model of buying a small number of extremely capable government-owned and operated spacecraft.

“Even if I had enough money to make the perfect satellite that could make all the measurements I want, that would not be a robust system,” Volz said. “We want a system that is resilient and adaptive. That requires a mix, a hybrid of big and little satellites, and functional redundancy across the system. If I lose a measurement, I have two others that can partially cover it and my system is ready to respond that way.”

Since NOAA committed decades ago to buy the generation of geostationary and polar orbiting spacecraft it began launching in 2016 and 2017, commercial industry has made dramatic advances in miniaturizing electronic technology and startups have formed to offer weather data.

NOAA could take advantage of those changes to free up money to invest in some new types of observations as St. Germain showed in one possible hybrid architecture.

A future NOAA constellation could feature a sophisticated satellite with imagery and lightning-mapping instruments in geostationary orbit and fly additional instruments as hosted payloads on commercial satellites in geostationary orbit to gather imagery over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The constellation could include satellites in highly elliptical geosynchronous Tundra orbits, which would improve observation of high-latitude regions and provide additional resiliency for mid-latitude imagery, plus a dedicated space weather mission at Earth-Sun Lagrange point 5, small satellites with sounders in low Earth orbit and radio occultation data purchased from commercial firms.

This type of constellation would provide data of various resolutions updated on different timelines, which would improve NOAA’s observation capabilities but present significant challenges to the National Weather Service. “We have more work to do there to make sure that’s a good idea,” St. Germain said.

St. Germain and Volz commented on the simultaneous release of NOAA’s NSOSA study and the National Academies Earth science decadal survey, because both highlight investments NASA and NOAA can make to enhance their capabilities through advanced technology. The agencies plan to look for areas of overlap where they can make joint investments.

“There are definitely places where we will have joint programs with NASA,” Volz said.