Proposed constellations would enhance Arctic weather observations

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With Arctic aviation and maritime activity on the rise, Europe and Canada are taking the lead in developing weather satellites to gather global data and improve observation of the Earth’s northernmost latitudes.

A consortium led by OHB Sweden AB is developing a prototype for the European Space Agency’s Arctic Weather Satellite, a proposed constellation of 16 small satellites in polar orbit to gather weather data, under a 32.5 million euro ($34.8 million) European Space Agency contract awarded last year.

The prototype, scheduled to launch in 2024, will be equipped with a microwave radiometer being developed by AAC Omnisys. Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the Arctic Weather Satellite ground segment.

The Arctic Weather Satellite mission “will greatly benefit the Arctic region and the globe with better weather predictions as the current systems do not provide the coverage and latency (to be implemented through a follow on constellation),” Bastiaan Lagaune, OHB Sweden space business engineer, told SpaceNews by email.

Geostationary weather satellites orbiting the equator provide ongoing observation of weather conditions at Earth’s mid-latitudes. To forecast weather conditions at higher latitudes, meteorologists wait for polar-orbiting satellites to circle the globe and relay observations.

In contrast, the Arctic Weather Satellite constellation “will ultimately provide an almost constant stream of temperature and humidity from every location on Earth, which will allow very short-range weather forecasting,” Lagaune added.

Frequent Arctic weather observations, for example, could benefit “the maritime sector which is planning to use the Northern Sea routes more and more with the changing Arctic sea conditions due to climate change,” Lagaune said. “Having accurate weather predictions in this harsh and remote environment are vital in ensuring safe and efficient transportation.”

The Canadian Space Agency, meanwhile, is working with Environment and Climate Change Canada and Natural Resources Canada on a two-year campaign to evaluate the cost and potential benefits of a proposed Arctic Observing Mission.

If approved, the Arctic Observing Mission (AOM) would send two satellites into highly elliptical orbits to maximize their view of northern regions while gathering data on meteorological conditions, greenhouse gases, air quality and space weather.

Preliminary plans call for the satellites to be equipped with spectrometers to track greenhouse gas emissions, a space weather sensor and a meteorological imager.

International partners could play important roles in the AOM program, said Ray Nassar, AOM principal investigator at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“Some possibilities include NASA or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contributing the space weather instrument suite,” Nassar said by email. “NOAA could potentially also contribute a spare flight model of the Advanced Baseline Imager.”

The Advanced Baseline Imager is the primary instrument on the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R Series.

Canada expects AOM to play an important role in an international constellation for weather, air quality and greenhouse gases.

“It would enhance these constellations with Northern observations in all of these three disciplines with free and open data for the international community,” Nassar said in a presentation at the American Meteorological Society annual meeting in January.

If the project wins Canadian government funding in 2025, AOM satellites could launch in the early 2030s.

A few years ago, NOAA also considered sending a weather satellite into a high-inclination Tundra orbit to enhance observation of northern latitudes. After evaluating the value of those observations against the program’s cost, though, NOAA opted to augment the data collected by its constellation of polar-orbiting satellites with observations made by international partners.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.