The U.S. Air Force is making data continuity

a top priority as it begins studying alternatives

to a space environment sensor that has been removed from a troubled weather satellite program.

Col. Brad Smith, commander of the DMSP systems group at the Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center in Los Angeles, said the Air Force will stay focused on existing or near-term technology as it searches for ways to replace the Space Environment Sensors on the aging Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites as quickly as possible. Pursuit of

more advanced capabilities will be deferred, an approach that is in keeping with the service’s current

“back-to-basics” approach to acquiring new space systems, Smith said

The Space Environmental Sensors suite currently is used

to gather data about

the ionosphere, magnetosphere, thermosphere

and solar surface, according to a request for information posted on the Federal Business Opportunities

Web site

July 19. Space weather data from the sensors can help alert U.S. forces to potential disruptions in satellite

-based capabilities, Smith said in a July 27 interview.

That data

also can play a role in diagnosing whether a problem with a satellite is due to natural conditions in space, or other causes like an enemy attack, Smith said.

The Air Force had previously planned to develop a next-generation sensor suite on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). However, plans to include

most of those sensors on the NPOESS satellites

were dropped – along with plans for six other instruments – when

the NPOESS program was restructured in June 2006 to reduce both the cost and risk of the multibillion-dollar effort.

Earlier this year, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, and NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, ordered a study to explore


to maintain continuity of the data that

initially had been expected

to come from the NPOESS sensors before those instruments were cut from the program

. The results of that study, which began in March, are due to be delivered to Chilton and Griffin in October, Smith said.

The Air Force

likely will buy two sensor suites, the first of which would launch in 2015, for what the service calls Block 1 of the effort, with the second block following several years later,

Smith said.

Each sensor suite

must be designed to have a 70 percent likelihood of lasting five years on orbit, he said.

The study will help fill in the details of the acquisition strategy for the new sensor suite, including whether it will be launched aboard dedicated small satellites, or if they will be hosted aboard other satellites, Smith said.

While the request for information states that the Air Force is looking for “innovative” approaches to the sensor suite, it also states that bidders must rely on mature technology that has been certified as having reached Technology Readiness Level-7, according to the request for information. A NASA document defines Technology Readiness Level-7 as technology that has been demonstrated in space.

Smith said that relying on proven technology will help reduce risk and increase confidence with the program’s schedule for Block 1. In addition to acquiring advanced capabilities in an incremental fashion, other aspects of the


approach include requiring bidders

to submit cost estimates with an 80 percent likelihood of meeting their target, according to the request for information.

The Air Force has not yet determined whether to award a single contract for both Block 1 and Block 2, or to hold separate competitions, Smith said. The Air Force is hoping for higher accuracy and better data resolution with Block 2, though the technology involved must be mature before those sensors are launched, according to the request for information.

The Air Force is keeping an open mind for innovative ways of addressing Block 2, Smith said. Possibilities could include dedicated satellites or sensors hosted on commercial satellites, as well as a purchase of data from other sources that could complement military sensors, he said.