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Diverse weather satellite user base presents opportunities and challenges

Diverse Weather Satellite User Base Presents Opportunities and Challenges

By Warren Ferster

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The dual-use nature of weather and environmental monitoring satellites can pose challenges from a data policy and user feedback perspective, but offers numerous opportunities for collaboration between the defense and civil sectors, government and industry officials said.

Speaking on a panel entitled “National Infrastructure and Security Applications for Weather and Oceans” at an annual space industry conference, officials also highlighted the critical importance of close collaboration between governments, and with the private sector.

“It’s often remarked, mostly by astronauts who have flown on the International Space Station, that there are no borders in space,” said Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for satellite and information services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  “But there are many borders that are imposed within [the Earth observation] enterprise – there are borders between agencies, the public and private sector, between nations…how do we bridge those boundaries to make the most effective enterprise?”

Pierre Delsaux, who is responsible for space policy and research at the European Commission, said the environmental phenomena and issues monitored by satellites tend to be global in nature, which places a premium on international cooperation. He noted that the European Union, which operates the Copernicus environmental monitoring satellite system, provided data to U.S. authorities to help mitigate the impacts of the hurricanes that devastated parts of the country and its territories in 2017.

“We need each other,” Delsaux said. “We simply need cooperation. Without cooperation, we will not be able to face all the challenges which are common to every part of this planet.”

Neil Jacobs, assistant U.S. secretary of commerce for environmental observation, and deputy administrator of NOAA, noted the long history of collaboration between his agency and the U.S. Department of Defense. “Our national security is composed of many strategic and tactical decisions linked to observed and predicted weather,” he said.

While NOAA already has a close relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), there are opportunities to do more together, Jacobs said. He asked for feedback from DoD customers on how they are using NOAA’s weather data, although some of the other panelists said national security users would be reluctant to have that kind of discussion.

One program that exemplifies the nexus between civil and national security applications in environmental monitoring is the U.S. Air Force’s Weather System Follow on- Microwave (WSF-M), which will monitor ocean-surface wind speed and direction and other phenomena to support military operations. As prime contractor, Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo., is developing the satellite, the main instrument, along with integration and system software, with options for up to two additional builds.

The WSF-M program leverages hardware used for civilian programs, according to Cory Springer, director of weather and environment at Ball. The spacecraft is a variant of the Ball Configurable Platform currently flying on NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System, which consists today of two satellites in low Earth orbit, he said.

The microwave imaging radiometer sensor, Springer added, is closely based on the passive sensor built by Ball for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, a collaboration between NASA and the Japanese Space Exploration Agency, JAXA. The GPM microwave imager, or GMI, now serves as a reference standard for calibrating precipitation measurements in the GPM constellation.

Launched in 2014, the GPM satellite also contributed data to U.S. authorities during the 2017 hurricanes, noted Hiroshi Yamakawa, president of JAXA.

The primary differences between the GPM and WSF-M instruments are that Ball swapped out some of the microwave collection channels on the latter and added a larger reflector to better capture the wind data required by the DoD, Springer said. “It’s design is very close to a carbon copy,” he said.

Once operational – launch is tentatively scheduled for 2022 – the first WSF-M satellite is expected to complement JPSS, Springer said. NOAA has long used data from the microwave imager/sounder instrument on the Air Force’s legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, he noted.

One of the issues raised by satellites with civilian and military applications is data policy. While the EU has an open data policy for Copernicus, for example, the satellites also gather data for security purposes, and this information by its very nature is not freely available, Delsaux noted.

“We need to look at how we can try to address this paradox,” Delsaux said. “When we are talking about images which can provide security information, for instance monitoring the borders, we stop our open data policy…because we need to make this sure that this kind of information is only used by a limited number of users.”

Border monitoring will become increasingly important in all areas of the world, and this requirement could factor into the design of future Copernicus satellites, Delsaux said. The resulting information products likely will not fall under the open data policy, he said.

Warren Ferster covered the global space industry as a journalist for 25 years, including 21 at SpaceNews, where he last served as editor in chief.