Can the private sector plug the weather data gap? Space Force to launch new study

Rendering of General Atomics Electro-Optical/Infrared Weather System (EWS) program.

By Sandra Erwin,
Published by Space News, 12 December 2023

Space Systems Command will invite companies to pitch technologies at a “reverse industry day”

ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. Space Force will launch a new market research study next year to assess commercial weather services to fill some of the military’s ever-growing data needs. The move comes amid concerns that the military’s current reliance on a patchwork of international and domestic sources is inadequate for future operational demands.

“We have a long list of requirements,” said Col. Robert Davis, program executive officer for space sensing at the Space Systems Command. 

While weather data is undeniably crucial for military operations, Davis said in an interview at the Space Force Association’s Spacepower conference, it faces stiff competition for resources within the Space Force budget. 

Davis oversees a $24 billion portfolio of space sensors including missile-warning and missile-tracking systems, and environmental monitoring satellites. Missile warning and tracking systems consume the majority of that funding and weather satellites haven’t received nearly the same level of funding or focus. 

Report raised alarm

The issue has drawn renewed attention following the release last month of a report by the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies criticizing DoD’s lagging efforts to recapitalize its environmental monitoring satellites as the aging Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) constellation nears the end of its life.

Only two DMSP satellites are still functioning, and DoD has become increasingly reliant on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Europe’s Eumetsat, the Japan Meteorological Agency and other partners.

Davis said the upcoming study represents a concerted effort to explore commercial solutions as the Space Force anticipates tight budgets and likely will not be able to afford to buy a large constellation to replace the polar-orbiting DMSPs. 

The Space Force is developing a small weather satellite called the Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) Weather System (EWS). The first EWS is scheduled to launch in 2025. Davis said the Space Force has funding for a second EWS satellite that would launch in 2028. It also plans to deploy an EO/IR cubesat next year for a technology demonstration. 

The Space Force also has acquired two Weather System Follow-on – Microwave (WSF-M) satellites, meant to replace some of the capabilities previously provided by DMSP. The first WSF-M will launch in 2024.

Six to 12-month study

But there are still gaps to be filled, Davis said. That is why the Space Sensing Office is kicking off a six-to-12-month study next year to identify potential commercial solutions. The office will host what is known as a “reverse industry day” where companies can come in and pitch their offerings, in contrast to the traditional approach where the military dictates its requirements and waits for industry to respond.

“We’re interested in leveraging commercial technologies, but we have no preconceived notions of what might work,” he said, and the Space Force is open to considering partial solutions.

“If a commercial provider can offer a 60% or even an 80% solution, we’re willing to work with them to bridge the gap,” he said. “The key is getting access to the data we need in a timely and reliable manner.”

“The commercial sector has made significant strides in recent years,” he added. But his office does not have enough insight into specific commercial capabilities or whether there are enough companies interested in the DoD weather market.

Davis said the study could pave the way for a more flexible and cost-effective approach to weather data collection in the years to come.

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