Updated June 2 with additional information on Orion’s EWS prototype

WASHINGTON — The Space Force is considering options to acquire small polar-orbiting weather satellites that could launch as early as 2026.

Under a program called EWS, short for Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Weather Systems, the Space Force last year selected two companies to develop prototype spacecraft and demonstrate them in orbit. 

One of the demonstrators, made by Orion Space Solutions, launched to orbit in January, but the cubesat did not separate from the launch vehicle, according to the Space Systems Command. The company is building another cubesat to be launched in early 2024. The other prototype, developed by General Atomics, is projected to launch in 2025

The command’s office that oversees the EWS program is now doing market research as it weighs options to acquire future satellites. It posted a request for information last month seeking to “identify industry sources capable of providing a spacecraft bus and integration support for a low Earth orbit, polar-orbiting, sun-synchronous weather sensor being developed to meet space-based environmental monitoring requirements.”

The idea is to build EWS satellites using existing sensors developed by Orion and General Atomics, said Lt. Col. Joseph Maguadog, materiel leader and program manager for EWS at the Space Systems Command’s environmental and tactical surveillance acquisition delta.

Number of satellites and deployment timeline TBD

Maguadog said in a statement to SpaceNews that no decisions have been made yet on how many satellites will be acquired or exactly when. 

EWS is needed to fill a gap in weather coverage as the military’s decades-old Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites are running out of fuel and projected to be out of service by 2026.

The EWS satellites will collect imagery of cloud cover and other weather data used by the U.S. military and allies to plan flight routes, combat search and rescue and other missions.

In a future procurement, the Space Force would select a satellite manufacturer to supply a bus, integrate a “government furnished” weather imaging sensor and provide post-launch support services. The sensor is projected to weigh no more than 160 kilograms.

Maguadog said the EWS sensors developed by Orion Space and General Atomics “are promising and are the basis for the government furnished sensor.”  

According to the request for information, the Space Force intends to acquire one or more EWS satellites between fiscal years 2026 and 2028. The selected contractor would be responsible for ground systems support and data distribution through a government cloud platform.

More satellites could be acquired in future years to cover other sun-synchronous polar orbits and improve global refresh rate.

Maguadog said the recent request for information is “for market research to ensure we are continually considering any new advancements available with our industry partners.”

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...