The Air Force has informally submitted a plan to Congress that would trade a troubled weather satellite program that has failed to make headway for a proliferated low earth orbit constellation, according to a report from the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The Air Force wants to fill upcoming gaps in weather data used to support military operations with a distributed constellation in low earth orbit and. along the way, scrap plans for a free flying space vehicle.
The two gaps are described as cloud characterization and theater weather imagery. Currently, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program provides that data, but that constellation is nearing the end of its life. The Pentagon’s concern is that those satellites will not last until a new satellite is launched in 2024 and the Air Force needs an interim solution in the meantime.
That solution was expected to be ORS-8, a collaboration between the Air Force and NASA. Developed through the Air Force’s now shuttered Operationally Responsive Space program, ORS-8 was slated to launch as soon as 2020, just before the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program expired, but that possibility ended after NASA rescinded the ORS-8 contract under protests.
The Pentagon had another plan to fill the gaps as well. The Air Force would essentially borrow a residual National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency satellite in geostationary orbit. That satellite, the Air Force claimed, can provide the high-quality electro-optical/infrared capability they need to fill the weather gaps immediately.
The Air Force would need to build the necessary ground system to support the NOAA satellite, but other than that, it could move forward quickly. Funding for that ground system was requested in the original fiscal year 2020 budget request. That satellite could provide the needed weather services, but the Pentagon still wants a solution that doesn’t rely on civilian or foreign satellites.
In the fiscal 2019 budget, the Air Force added a new step. In addition to borrowing the NOAA satellite for immediate use, the Air Force wanted to begin procurement of a free flyer space vehicle to operate in low earth orbit. The Pentagon requested $101 million to develop the satellite for fiscal year 2020, with the expectation that the Air Force would award a contract later next year and the space vehicle could launch in 2024.
But according to a report from the Senate Appropriations Committee, those plans have been abandoned. Instead, the Air Force has informally submitted its plan to Congress to switch to a proliferated low earth orbit constellation as the solution to their weather needs.
Senators appear skeptical of the plan, which they said they have not been briefed on yet.
“The Committee is concerned about the Department’s shift to what may be an overreliance on notional small satellite constellations for a variety of challenging acquisitions. No small satellite constellations currently exist and potential challenges with communications and ground systems have yet to be tested,” Senators wrote in their report on the annual defense spending bill.
It’s unclear how much this plan leans into the Space Development Agency’s nominal architecture, which includes hundreds of small satellites operating in low earth orbit providing multiple services. It’s also unclear whether the Air Force still plans to borrow the NOAA satellite or when the low earth orbit satellites would be on-orbit by.
At the annual Air Force Association conference Sept. 18, Col. Dennis Bythewood, program executive officer for space development at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, downplayed the committee’s concerns to reporters.
“The result of [these marks] will be a conversation between the Department of Defense and Congress to ensure that they are aware exactly of what we intend to do and move forward on. So they’re not driving us to one particular avenue,” he said.
“Across the board in our weather strategies (...) we’re looking at multi-layers of an architecture, how to most cost effectively move forward in capability. They can be incrementally delivered over time. So that becomes a mix of large satellites that do missions and smaller satellites that we can launch in order to grow capability over time,” he explained. “We’re finding much more capable sensors being delivered in small packages that we think we can grow mission sets over time. Those are the types of things that we are looking at within our strategy.”
Ultimately, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to transfer the $101 million the Pentagon requested to develop a free flyer space vehicle to procurement of an EO/IR weather sensor. However, members want more information on the Air Force plan before they meet with the House members on a conference bill.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.