COLORADO SPRINGS — Orion Space Solutions is looking to demonstrate how shoebox-sized satellites can reliably capture vital meteorological observations that have traditionally required large, more expensive spacecraft. 

The company is one of two selected by the U.S. Space Force for the Electro-Optical/Infrared Weather System program, or EWS. The military is considering deploying a distributed architecture to monitor weather conditions from space in a more affordable way.

Based in Louisville, Colorado, Orion Space is a subsidiary of the defense contractor Arcfield. The company on March 4 launched a tiny 12U cubesat, which is set to begin a year-long demonstration mission.

Chad Fish, general manager and president of Orion Space, said the cubesat will be circling the Earth in a low-altitude polar orbit to capture imagery of cloud cover, a critical data point for military operations worldwide. This demonstration serves as a crucial test for the Space Force, which is grappling with the looming obsolescence of its two remaining Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft.

Last month’s launch was Orion’s second attempt to deploy the EWS prototype, a year after the first mission failed to separate from the rocket.

Despite its small size, Orion’s spacecraft carries a substantial electro-optical sensor that will be able to demonstrate cloud imaging capabilities, Fish said. Another goal of the mission is to prove that cubesats are sufficiently reliable and resilient to fulfill military needs.

The Pentagon’s latest budget proposal allocates about $80 million annually for the EWS program over the next five years.

The U.S. military and allies rely on cloud cover data to plan military operations such as flight routes, missile strikes, combat search and rescue, and overall intelligence collection.

Fish said the idea of using commercially developed small satellites to fill the gap left by the retirement of DMSP would have not been considered even five years ago, but the technology has improved rapidly. 

He said dozens of cubesats would be needed to provide global coverage if the Space Force wanted to move forward with the concept, Fish said. “I do believe that the government and even just industry in general are starting to accept commercial offerings as supportive or complementary to the traditional government approaches.”

Second demo planned for 2025

A second EWS satellite is being developed by San Diego, California-based General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems for delivery in 2025. Much larger than a cubesat, this will be a nearly 300-kilogram ESPA Grande ring-shaped spacecraft.

A company spokesperson said the payload for General Atomics’ EWS satellite will be completed this year and shipped to the company’s assembly and integration facility in Centennial, Colorado

The Space Force also is exploring the possibility of buying weather data as a service as an alternative to operating government-owned satellites.

According to Space Force budget documents, the next phase of EWS will “explore various technology projects and partnerships to determine the most technically acceptable, resilient, and affordable option.” An acquisition strategy “will be decided in fiscal year 2026 and will consider modern architectures such as proliferated LEO, hosted payloads or other commercial capabilities.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...