WASHINGTON — A planned new generation of polar-orbiting U.S. military weather satellites could be small enough to launch on Minotaur rockets, as opposed to the much larger — and far more expensive — Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets that today launch the vast majority of operational U.S. military spacecraft, an Air Force official said March 27.

In a conference call with reporters, Col. Scott Larrimore, the weather program director at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, also said the second-to-last of the current-generation Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites, now undergoing final preparations for an April launch aboard an Atlas 5, carries a final price tag exceeding $500 million, including production and nearly two decades of storage and refurbishment costs. 

In 1995, around the time that satellite was built, the cost of a DMSP satellite was pegged at about $130 million in then-year dollars, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released that year. The cost inflation is a cautionary tale on the practice of buying satellites in bulk, Larrimore said.

The DMSP satellites will be replaced starting around 2020 by the Weather System Follow-On (WSF), which will feature dedicated Air Force satellites providing data in concert with U.S. civilian forecasting assets. The Air Force’s 2015 budget request includes $40 million to begin developing the system, which has been under study since the 2010 cancellation of a joint civil-military polar-orbiting weather satellite program. 

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in January the new military weather satellites could be a showcase for disaggregation, an emerging vision for space that favors smaller, less-complex satellites, hosted payloads and other deployment schemes versus the large, complex systems that have been the standard for decades.  

The Air Force’s 2015 budget documents say the WSF program is “comprised of a group of systems to provide timely, reliable, and high quality space-based remote sensing capabilities that meet global environmental observations of atmospheric, terrestrial, oceanographic, solar-geophysical and other validated requirements.”

Larrimore said that since the 1980s, the U.S. military gradually has been relying more on civilian satellites and international partners for weather information. 

The new satellites, Larrimore said, will have a limited set of capabilities and could be small enough to launch on the Minotaur family of rockets, which make use of excess ballistic missile motors to launch small to medium-sized satellites. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is the prime contractor.

A Pentagon source said the Air Force is eyeing the Minotaur 4, one of the larger variants in the family, which has an advertised capability to place satellites weighing up to 900 kilograms into a sun-synchronous orbit with an altitude of 850 kilometers, which is where the DMSP satellites fly. The satellites would be much smaller than the 1,230-kilogram DMSP craft and could utilize one of a number of commercially available satellite platforms, this source said.

Meanwhile, the Air Force’s DMSP Flight 19 satellite is on schedule to launch April 3 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. It will be the first launch since 2009 of a DMSP satellite, whose legacy dates back to the 1960s. One of the original purposes of the DMSP satellites was determine when optical U.S. spy satellites would be able to collect cloud-free data.

DMSP Flight 19 includes sensors to capture visible and infrared cloud cover, measure precipitation, and collect specialized meteorlogical information, the satellite’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., said in a March 20 press release.

Larrimore said the final cost of the satellite, ordered in the 1980s as part of a so-called block buy of DMSP craft, was about $518 million. Block buys are designed to apply economies of scale to lower the unit costs of products. But in the case of DMSP Flight 19, the strategy has proved to be a double-edged sword. 

“It’s a little bit of lessons learned,” Larrimore said of the high price tag. “You can accrue additional costs as you continue to store and work on those satellites.”

In addition to the lengthy storage period, DMSP Flight 19 and the final satellite in the series, DMSP Flight 20, have required substantial refurbishment work, including replacement of aging, outdated and faulty components. 

DMSP Flight 20 will be launched according to an as-needed schedule. Officials from the Defense Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plan to finish a study this summer that will consider the consequences of not launching the satellite, Larrimore said. 

Among the questions he said the study will examine are: “What does [the satellite] bring the national stage? How might it help what other needs the government has?”

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...