COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Space Force on Thursday launched an operational weather satellite for the first time in a decade, as it upgrades a meteorological network that’s been in orbit for more than half a century.

The Ball Aerospace-built satellite lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base April 11 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The spacecraft is part of the Weather Satellite Follow-on Microwave program, or WSF-M.

The launch is a first step toward modernizing the Space Force’s 60-year-old weather constellation, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. The legacy satellites’ sensors can measure things like moisture in the atmosphere, cloud cover and precipitation — data that the military uses to plan its missions. The last DMSP satellite launched in 2014.

The WSF-M satellite, which can detect wind speeds and tropical storm intensity and determine snow and soil depth, meets a portion of those requirements. A second WSF-M spacecraft will launch in 2028. The remaining capabilities will come through satellites developed through the Electro-Optical Weather System, with the first slated to launch in 2025 and the second in 2027.

The Pentagon has been trying for more than 20 years to develop a replacement for DMSP. In the ‘90s it kicked off the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. The effort was canceled after repeated cost and schedule breaches. Lawmakers canceled a second attempt, the Defense Weather Satellite System, in 2012 due to mismanagement.

The Mitchell Institute, a DC-based aerospace think tank, said in a November 2023 report that while those efforts were well-intentioned, their missteps have put the military at risk. In that time, the capability of the DMSP satellites in orbit has depleted, and the two remaining spacecraft are on track to run out of fuel in 2026.

“These back-to-back failed mission modernization efforts weakened an already obsolescing national security weather enterprise, burning through time and resources while doing little to produce the operational capabilities necessary to meet demand,” the report states.

The plan to split the DMSP requirements into two programs came in 2018, but the four-satellite mix is not the service’s final strategy for long-term weather coverage. The satellites, each designed to last at least three years, will serve as an interim capability as the Space Force determines how much of the mission can be met by commercially available weather capabilities.

Col. Rob Davis, Space Systems Command’s program executive officer for space sensing, told C4ISRNET the service plans to host an industry day later this month to hear ideas from companies about how their systems and sensors might meet Space Force requirements.

“There’s a lot of interest out there,” Davis said in an April 10 interview at Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. “I’ve met with several companies this week that are developing commercial weather capabilities.”

Over the next year, the Space Force will weigh those options as part of a study that will inform its new space weather architecture.

The Mitchell Institute report recommends the service pursue a disaggregated architecture comprised of smaller, less expensive satellites as well as government-owned systems.

“Space Force recognizes that it can augment some of its space-based sensing capabilities with commercial services,” the report states. “While this is an important family of systems capability, it is not a substitute for a DMSP replacement system, nor does it provide the necessary organic space-based environmental monitoring capabilities DOD requires.”

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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