Tropical storm observations from Orbital Micro Systems' Global Environmental Monitoring System passive microwave sounder, which gathered data in low-Earth orbit from 2019 to 2021. Credit: Orbital Micro Systems

SAN FRANCISCO – Ball Aerospace, Northrop Grumman, Orbital Micro Systems and Spire Global won contracts, announced Aug. 31, to design microwave sounders for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Under the contracts awarded by NASA on behalf of NOAA, the four companies will conduct studies and design sounders for the Near-Earth Orbit Network, or NEON, NOAA’s next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites,

Colorado-based Ball and OMS, and Virginia-based Northrop Grumman each claimed $5 million firm-fixed-price contracts to design NOAA’s Sounder for Microwave-Based Applications (SMBA). The value of Virginia-based Spire’s contract was approximately $4.7 million.

After the firms complete the 12-month studies, NASA and NOAA will decide whether to proceed with development and manufacturing of the sounder.

Beyond JPSS

If approved, SMBA would begin gathering data on NEON satellites in low-Earth orbit in 2030, according to the NASA news release.

Microwave sounders provide key datasets for numerical weather models. NEON, the weather satellite constellation that succeeds the Joint Polar Satellite System, begins with a free-flying sounder and continue over decades with a series of small- to medium-sized satellites.

NOAA leads the NEON mission and provides funding, technical requirements and post-launch operations. NASA manages satellite development and launch.

NOAA is drafting plans for the successor to the Joint Polar Satellite System, the latest generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites. The new program, called Near Earth Orbit Network or NEON, will overlap with JPSS.

Commercial Weather Instruments

Chuck Cash, Spire vice president of federal sales, said in a statement, “We’re proud to leverage Spire’s expertise in satellite technology to advance Earth observation and empower meteorologists, scientists and researchers with more precise insights into atmospheric properties.”

OMS demonstrated its Global Environmental Monitoring System passive microwave sounder in orbit from 2019 to 2021.

“GEMS1 operated on orbit successfully for 19 month before de-orbiting in April 2021. It is still the only commercial microwave sounder mission that has been flown to date,” Michael Hurowitz, OMS founder, CEO and chief technology officer, told SpaceNews by email.

Ball is manufacturing two Weather System Follow-on Microwave satellites for the U.S. Space Force.

Northrop Grumman is building the Electro-Optical Infrared Weather System prototype for the Space Force.

Spire announced plans last year to equip its cubesats with microwave sounders from RAL Space, the British government’s national laboratory.

This article was updated Sept. 1 with information on Orbital Micro Systems’ Global Environmental Monitoring System.

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...