The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new weather satellite campaign begins with a free-flying sounder and continues over decades with launches of small to medium-sized satellites.
“It’s not going to be, if things work out the way we expect, large satellites but multiple small satellites,” said Steve Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services.
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.
When JPSS ends around 2038, NEON will continue as one of NOAA’s primary initiatives for gathering data for weather forecasting, environmental observation, climate monitoring and public safety.
NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service is adopting a portfolio approach to data gathering. Groups within NESDIS will focus on observational areas: lowEarth orbit, geostationary orbit and space weather.
The low-Earth orbit program kicks off with QuickSounder.
NOAA plans to launch an Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder engineering development unit refurbished by manufacturer Northrop Grumman on a commercial satellite bus.
NOAA is working with NASA to select a company to integrate the ATMS engineering development unit with the bus, fly it on a small launch vehicle and operate it for three years. The contract will include two single-year options to extend the QuickSounder mission.
Unlike traditional NOAA programs that often come together over a decade, QuickSounder is expected to launch within three years and immediately begin supplying data to National Weather Service models.
“We want to show we can launch assets when and where they are most needed,” Tim Walsh, NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System program director, told SpaceNews.
JPSS satellites fly in an early afternoon sun-synchronous orbit. In contrast, QuickSounder will fly in a terminator orbit.
“Data from different orbital locations gives our users, the National Weather Service and many others, a better global snapshot for their numerical weather prediction modeling,” Walsh said.
NEON Series One
NOAA’s next-generation microwave sounder, the Sounder for Microwave-Based Applications, is expected to launch around 2030.
Through a program called NEON Series One, NOAA will launch new microwave and infrared sounders, which supply critical data for weather models, on common buses.
“Those are the first two instruments that we will be developing under the NEON program,” Walsh said. “We’re going to build a number of these infrared and microwave sounders. They will fly on the first series of spacecraft.”
How many satellites?
“We should know roughly how many orbital planes, how many instruments per orbit and what their launch cadence will be by the end of the fiscal year,” Walsh said.
For a program like GeoXO, NOAA defined the requirements for all the instruments up front. NEON, in contrast, is a loosely coupled program. NOAA can carry out various projects to test sensors, satellite buses, acquisition and launch strategies as the agency charts its course.
NEON SERIES TWO
Scientists will determine which sensors fly on NEON Series Two.
Like JPSS, NEON Series Two satellites may be equipped with instruments like the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite and Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite “or something different perhaps, like a scatterometer,” Walsh said. “The nice thing about the NEON program is it allows us to iterate with our scientists to find those measurements that are most useful to weather prediction.”
NOAA’s 2024 budget proposal seeks $342.4 million in fiscal year 2024 for the Polar Weather Satellites program, which includes JPSS. That program received $183.5 million in 2023 after NOAA requested $350.2 million.
The requested funding would allow NOAA to continue work on the JPSS-3 and -4 satellites, currently scheduled for launch in late 2027 and late 2032, respectively. However, at a March meeting of a committee of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, Volz said the agency was considering swapping the order of those launches to allow more testing of a NASA instrument called Libera to measure solar radiation reflected by the Earth and thermal radiation emitted by it. Libera will be hosted on JPSS-3.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.