This artist's concept shows the new Weather System Follow-on – Microwave satellite Ball Aerospace is building for the U.S. Air Force under a contract awarded in November. It includes a passive microwave imaging radiometer instrument and energetic charged particle sensor supplied by the government. Credit: Ball Aerospace

AUSTIN, Texas — The U.S. Air Force’s future weather satellite plans are beginning to take shape but are centered around enhancing information technology, cybersecurity and small satellites in the near term rather than a new generation of large, sophisticated spacecraft to replace the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.

That’s largely due to budget constraints and the fact that accurate forecasting, while critical to military operations, is not the service’s primary mission, according to current and former government officials who asked not to be quoted.

“In a competition between buying a few extra F-35s or weather satellites, there’s no question,” one official said.

Nevertheless, the Air Force is moving ahead with plans to buy satellites to fulfill its requirements for microwave, electro-optical and infrared observations.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center awarded Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. a contract in November to build two satellites equipped with passive microwave imaging radiometers and Energetic Charged Particle sensors to send into low Earth orbit. The Air Force plans to include Energetic Charged Particle sensors on all future satellites to enhance its space weather observations.

To bridge the gap created by the end of Defense Meteorological Satellite-19 operations, the Air Force plans to work with the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office to launch a small satellite with electro-optical and infrared imagers in 2021 or 2022 to characterize clouds.

Due to the quick timeline of this gap-filler program, companies would have approximately two years to build the passive microwave imaging radiometer.

Harris Corp. is one of the companies eager to do that. Harris would build it by relying on the heritage of imagers it built for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Polar Operational Environmental Satellites, said Eric Webster, Harris environmental solutions vice president and general manager.

In addition, the Air Force began soliciting proposals Nov. 27 from industry for Weather System Follow-on satellites equipped with instruments to characterize clouds and provide imagery in theaters of combat. The first satellite in this new Weather Satellite Follow-on Electro-optical/Infrared constellation (WSF-E) would be launched around 2024 and like DMSP would cross the equator early in the morning local time, according to the request for proposals.

Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which NOAA flies on the  Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite and NOAA-20, the first Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft, is a candidate for the WSF-E mission. The VIIRS sensor was designed to fulfill NASA, NOAA and Defense Department requirements as part of the cancelled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program. Some VIIRS capabilities like its day-night imagery stem from military requirements.

“To a large extent VIIRS on Suomi NPP and JPSS-1 is already doing the WSF-E mission,” said Robert Curbeam, Raytheon Space Systems director. “Obviously because that data is available, the military uses it. They also use a lot of data products that use VIIRS data: sea surface temperature, ocean color, turbidity, littoral transport,” said Curbeam, a former astronaut and U.S. Navy captain.

To bolster its weather satellite constellation, the Air Force also is considering using one of NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites fill a gap in coverage over the Indian Ocean.

“We are working with the Air Force to offer up one of our retired GOES N, O, P satellites for that transfer,” said Steve Volz, NOAA acting assistant secretary for environmental observation and prediction. “With GOES-16 functioning, we are in a robust situation. We can afford to give the Air Force one of our spares. We have two backups; we only need one.”

GOES N, O, P are NOAA’s generation of satellites that preceded the GOES-R constellation that is beginning to take shape with the November 2016 launch of GOES-16 and the anticipated launch of GOES-S in March.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...