NOAA seeks to “kick the tires” on new instruments, mission concepts

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LOGAN, Utah – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to conduct technology demonstrations and pathfinder projects as it prepares to update its Earth observation constellations.

NOAA plans to release a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) in September for low Earth orbit instruments and mission concepts and another focused on geostationary orbit. In the BAAs, NOAA will request information on technology and cost related to instruments and missions the agency identified as promising in the NOAA Satellite Observing System Architecture study, an extensive quantitative analysis completed in 2017 aimed at creating a capable, affordable and resilient space-based architecture.

In addition, NOAA will ask for new ideas. “Do you have other mission concepts that we should consider?” Karen St. Germain, systems architecture and advanced planning director for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, asked Aug. 6 during the NOAA Town Hall at the Small Satellite Conference here. “These could be capabilities that have become available since we completed the analysis or option that we didn’t think of. We wanted to open that door with both of these BAAs.”

In low Earth orbit, NOAA is looking for ways to augment observations from its Joint Polar Satellite System because some of the other satellites it relies on for weather data, Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellites and Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft, are nearing the end of their lives.

“I’d like to start to replenish them with diversity, at least with demonstrations, by the mid-2020s,” St. Germain said.

Instead of flying an extensive suite on instruments on one spacecraft like JPSS, NOAA is considering operating one or more small satellites. For example, microwave, infrared and radio occultation instruments could fly together on one satellite.

“The idea is those would be small, affordable satellites,” St. Germain said. “That would allow us to replenish some of the orbits we’ll lose when we lose the residual Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite assets.”

Unlike in the past, when NOAA selected a program of record and carried it out over the next 10 to 20 years, the agency wants to continue testing new technologies and mission concepts and refreshing its on-orbit capabilities.

“In the case of low Earth orbit, we’re looking for demonstrations with a launch cadence in the neighborhood of every three years or less,” St. Germain said, adding that all NOAA’s plans are contingent on appropriations. “In my ideal world, we would have competitive demonstrations and really kick the tires on some of the concepts.”

In geostationary orbit, NOAA will need new observation tools around 2030. The agency is focusing largely on weather imagery but also seeking space weather data.

“The opportunities we see here are less aggregation of capability on big platforms,” St. Germain said. For example, NOAA could move instruments onto dedicated small spacecraft or send them into orbit as hosted payloads on commercial satellites.

One of the concepts NOAA is interested in exploring is flying the same imager on spacecraft in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits. Imagers in geostationary orbit provide NOAA with persistent observation over lower latitudes. To better observe Alaska and areas further north, the agency could operate satellites in Tundra or other highly elliptical orbits.

“Would operating the same satellite and same imager in both orbits be a cost-effective way to get persistent observation of high latitude,” St. Germain asked. “How reasonable is that and how much does that drive cost?”

In the upcoming BAAs, NOAA will ask for short proposals, which might be five to 10 pages. The agency then plans to conduct industry days to answer questions related to the BAAs. Based on the proposals it receives from the BAAs, NOAA officials will select the ones are worth pursuing through more extensive funded studies.