U.S. Air Force Considers Using SBIRS To Watch Weather

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is studying the possibility of using its next generation of missile warning satellites to help keep a constant eye on the weather and help military forecasters stay on top of rapidly changing meteorological conditions in political hot spots.

The service started a demonstration effort in fall 2011 to see if the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) can provide weather forecasters with continuous real-time data, according to Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center spokeswoman Carla Rose-Pryor. Officials are finding out if SBIRS can provide advantages in tracking “rapidly developing” meteorological events, especially in areas such as Afghanistan where weather-tracking capabilities are limited, she said via email Oct. 1.

The first dedicated SBIRS satellite — one of four such spacecraft that prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is building for the Air Force — was launched into geosynchronous orbit in May 2011. The satellites will work in concert with SBIRS payloads flying on classified satellites in highly elliptical orbits to provide the United States with global, persistent surveillance of missile launches.

Air Force Space Command and the Air Force Weather Agency at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska are conducting demonstrations to evaluate the value of SBIRS’s Overheard Persistent Infrared data to meteorologists.

“SBIRS payloads are not ideal weather sensors,” Rose-Pryor wrote, noting that forecasters cannot do without the high-resolution visible and infrared imagery they get from the Operational Linescan System sensors flying on Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. “On the other hand, SBIRS … offers the opportunity to augment meteorological satellites over much of the earth’s surface with data that is refreshed every several minutes.”

The bottom line, according to Rose-Pryor, is that the U.S. military still needs dedicated weather sensors and a follow-on to DMSP.

Congress canceled the service’s proposed follow-on, the Defense Weather Satellite System, last year and provided $123.5 million to study advanced sensor technologies and alternative approaches to meeting the military’s weather forecasting demands. A portion of that funding is being used to study whether SBIRS can play a role in military weather forecasting, Rose-Pryor said. The Air Force has requested $2 million in 2013 for the follow-on system, which would replace the service’s aging DMSP system.

The service is not expected to budget additional funding for a follow-on system until fiscal year 2015. The cost of the system was recently pegged at between $4.4 billion and $6.1 billion by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

The Air Force has two DMSP satellites left on the ground and plans to launch the first one into polar orbit as early as October 2013, with the second one to follow as needed.

Rose-Pryor said that as the Air Force begins a formal analysis of alternatives this month for a DMSP follow-on system, it will look at opportunities for SBIRS and other satellites to contribute to military weather forecasting.

Meanwhile, Air Force Space Command and the weather experts at Offutt will continue working on the technical processes needed to use SBIRS data in meteorological operations.

“Since the data is different from traditional meteorological satellite imagery, training for interpretive techniques will need to be developed,” Rose-Pryor wrote. “Nevertheless, forecasters are determining how this new capability can complement their existing tools and add temporal advantages in tracking rapidly developing environmental events, especially in areas such as Afghanistan where weather is complex and dynamic, and where in situ weather data networks and sources are limited.”

If the Air Force Weather Agency finds the SBIRS data operationally useful, Rose-Pryor said, it could become part of the forecasts and data products the agency kicks out to military units worldwide.