Commercial satellites represent a growing portion of the overall satellite market. NOAA is seeking to take advantage of many of the tools and technologies developed for small satellites to make its future constellation more agile and adaptable. Credit: NOAA

SAN FRANCISCO – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded eight contracts with a combined total of nearly $4.5 million to companies developing mission concepts, spacecraft and instruments for the agency’s future Earth observation constellation.

The study contracts announced April 9 were the first awards issued in the agency’s campaign to create a future Earth observation constellation that is far more agile and adaptable than its existing constellation.

L3Harris claimed two of the eight awards, garnering total funding of nearly $1.25 million. Maxar won the largest individual contract worth nearly $1 million. NOAA also awarded nearly $850,000 to Leidos, $575,000 to GeoMetWatch, $376,000 to BAE Systems, nearly $370,000 to York Space Systems and $60,000 to Brandywine Photonics.

To date, NOAA has opted for large satellites packed with state-of-the-art sensors like the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series. With that approach, NOAA selected new satellites and instruments many years before launch. Then, the agency ordered multiple spacecraft of the same design, meaning technology didn’t change much for decades.

NOAA’s future space constellation is likely to present a stark contrast.

Through a series of Broad Agency Announcement and study contracts, NOAA is gathering information on new instruments, spacecraft, business models and mission concepts. The idea is to take advantage of recent innovations like the miniaturization of instruments, economical small satellites and varied launch opportunities to continue the measurements the agency already makes and provide additional observations, said Vanessa Griffin, director of systems architecture and advanced planning for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.

If all goes as planned, JPSS and GOES-R satellites will continue to form the backbone of NOAA’s Earth observing system into the 2030s. In the mid-2020s, though, NOAA wants to begin collecting data from new sounders in low Earth orbit.

NOAA obtains atmospheric weather data at various times of the day from sounders on JPSS, European meteorological satellites, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program and Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellites. As the final Defense Meteorological Satellite Program and Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite approach the end of their lives, NOAA is investigating ways to replace their observations and to obtain additional data with sounders on small satellites.

Through a Broad Agency Announcement released in October and study contracts, NOAA is exploring options for launching a small satellite equipped with a microwave sounder, an infrared sounder and perhaps also a radio occultation sounder as early as 2025. If that strategy is successful, NOAA could consider launching a small satellite a year later with the same instruments. Or, the agency could swap one or more of the sensors for a different one.

A key element of NOAA’s future architecture strategy is adopting a standard interface between satellites and instruments. “It gives us a lot more agility and flexibility in our flight programs,” Griffin said.

In its future geostationary fleet, NOAA Is focused on continuing to capture detailed imagery of the continental United States every 30 seconds like it obtains with the L3Harris Advanced Baseline Imager, the primary instrument on GOES-R series satellites.

NOAA also is investigating the possibility of adding instruments to future geostationary satellites it doesn’t currently operate like ocean-color or hyperspectral sensors.

Through a Broad Agency Announcement focused on geostationary orbit and extended orbits, NOAA invited proposals for satellites in highly elliptical orbits. Satellites in highly elliptical orbit are not in NOAA’s existing constellation, but could expand the coverage area of the future space architecture.

“Depending on the orbit you chose, a highly elliptical orbit would allow you to image the Arctic or to image the Arctic and the Antarctic both,” Griffin said.

NOAA received nearly 70 responses to its Broad Agency Announcements. NOAA followed up with requests for proposals and the first tranche of study contracts announced April 9.

The program remains on schedule in spite of the novel coronavirus.

“NOAA has not identified any delays to its satellite instrument development activities and launch schedules, at this time,” NOAA spokesman John Leslie said by email. “NOAA is working daily with all of its partners on our first priority, which is to keep all team members safe, while ensuring the continued delivery of vital earth observations to meet NOAA’s weather and environmental monitoring mission essential functions.”

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...