Solar flare protons and energetic electrons affect satellites, avionics and Earth's magnetic field. Credit: NASA

PHOENIX – The U.S. Air Force has obligated about $7 million of its $20 million budget for commercial satellite weather data.

“We’ve still got dollars available for this,” said John Dreher, weather systems branch chief at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

Congress provided the Air Force with a total of about $20 million in 2017, 2018 and 2019 budgets to assess whether data drawn from commercial weather satellites could meet military requirements. Since then the Air Force has awarded contracts for about $7 million through the Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program with another $3 million “in process,” Dreher said Jan. 9 at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) conference here.

When the Air Force initially received the funding, it surveyed the market and found few companies with satellites in orbit producing commercial weather data. First, the Air Force evaluated the capabilities of those firms. Now, the service is looking more broadly at ways it can support commercial ventures that may not yet have satellites flying, Dreher said.

“We are trying to take advantage of any commercial opportunities,” said Rod Grady, Air Force Weather Weapon System chief architect. “This is a growth industry.”

To establish contracts quickly, the Air Force is considering various methods including working with accelerators like the Catalyst Campus for Technology & Innovation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, awarding Small Business Innovative Research funding or forging cooperative agreements known as Other Transaction Authority.

Dreher and Grady did not discuss the type of satellite weather data the Air Force is evaluating. However, presentations at the AMS conference revealed the role Global Navigation Satellite System radio occultation soundings could play in space weather monitoring and forecasting.

In September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded a total of more than $8 million to GeoOptics, PlanetiQ and Spire to provide GPS radio occultation data from current or planned constellations. In addition to providing atmospheric temperature and moisture data for numerical weather prediction models, radio occultation soundings can reveal ionospheric electron density and energetic particles that can affect space, airborne and ground-based systems.

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...