This is an image of Raytheon's Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite undergoing testing at Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, California. Credit: Reuben Wu

As the U.S. Air Force surveys the market to identify contractors who could develop electro-optical infrared sensors to meet Defense Department’s weather requirements, Raytheon is highlighting the capabilities of its existing sensor, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), currently flying on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite and NOAA-20, known prior to launch as Joint Polar Satellite System-1.

“The VIIRS sensor today was built to meet all of the DoD’s weather needs for electro-optical infrared,” said Wallis Laughrey, Raytheon Space Systems vice president. “It’s currently satisfying those needs just not in the early morning orbit, which is particularly important to the Department of Defense because of timeliness.”

The Air Force has two initiatives underway to enhance its ability to monitor weather using electro-optical infrared imagers. It is working with the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office to launch a small satellite around 2022 to bridge the gap created by the end of Defense Meteorological Satellite-19 operations.

The Air Force also issued a Request for Information in November, asking industry what it could offer to meet the Defense Department’s requirements for space-based monitoring of clouds and weather imagery in theaters of operation.

“The system solutions will consist of a space segment, containing cost effective, space-based Low Earth Orbiting Sun-synchronous Electro-Optical Infrared sensor(s) with real-time data broadcast capabilities, integrated with a to be determined DoD, civil, or commercial ground segment,” according to the Nov. 29 solicitation in FedBizOpps. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Remote Sensing Systems Directorate “seeks to receive information that will further clarify the industrial base landscape so that the Government can consider developing a solicitation.”

“We are in dialogue with the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense to say, ‘VIIRS already meets your needs. You are starting two new development programs that have less capability than the one you have currently in production today albeit with another agency,” Laughrey told SpaceNews April 16 at the 34th Space Symposium here.

The requirements for Weather Satellite Follow-on, Electro-Optical Infrared, known as WSF-E, and the requirements for the gap filler mission, led by the Pentagon’s ORS office known as ORS-8 “are less than what we are already doing today,” Laughrey said.

That’s because the VIIRS sensor was designed to fulfill the needs of the NASA science community, NOAA weather forecasters and the Defense Department as part of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program. When that program was cancelled, NASA and NOAA continued funding development and production of VIIRS, which flies on Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft in the afternoon orbit to provide data for civil weather and scientific missions.

“When you take that superset of [DoD, NOAA and NASA] requirements, VIIRS has more capability than what the Department of Defense may say they need,” Laughrey said. “The DoD is using VIIRS for all of its electro-optical infrared data today. They are just not getting it as timely as they want.”

Raytheon executives are meeting with the Defense Department weather forecasters and the people drafting military requirements to understand future weather forecasting needs, Laughrey said.

“Clearly the DoD has needs to satisfy quickly with the right capability,” Laughrey said. “If the right answer is to develop a new sensor then that’s our business and we are prepared and supportive of anything the DoD chooses to go do.”

Nevertheless, Raytheon is making sure Defense Department and Air Force officials are aware that it has a hot production line for “a sensor the military already is using to meet its needs,” Laughrey said. In 2016, NASA awarded Raytheon $564 million to build VIIRS sensors for Joint Polar Satellite System-3 and -4.

“It takes away an enormous amount of development risk if you don’t change anything and buy what you are already building,” Laughrey said.

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...