Updated January 26 at 12:30 p.m. EST.
SEATTLE — The Air Force plans to take over an existing geostationary-orbit weather satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help fill a gap in Indian Ocean coverage.
During a panel discussion at the 97th annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society here Jan. 24, Ralph Stoffler, director of weather for the U.S. Air Force, said that as part of a cooperative agreement larger signed in December between the Air Force and NOAA, the Air Force may later take over operations of a spare Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) weather satellite.
This opportunity became available after the successful launch in November of the GOES-R satellite, now named GOES-16. This satellite is being verified and should become operational later this year.
“We have a plan where potentially, now that GOES-R is up there, GOES-14 would become DOD-1 as we try to grab that satellite and move it to the Indian Ocean and become the first weather satellite DOD geostationary, if we have to go that route,” he said.
Weather satellite coverage of the Indian Ocean region has been a challenge for the Air Force, which has relied on non-US satellites, including from Europe, to provide imagery. The area was served by Eumetsat’s Meteosat-7 satellite, which is due to be retired this year. In June 2016, Eumetsat agreed to move Meteosat-8 to the region to continue coverage when Meteosat-7 is retired.
Meteosat-8 is in a different orbital position from Meteosat-7 – 41.5 degrees East versus 57 degrees East – so its coverage of the region is not the same. Meteosat-8 is also expected to reach end of life in 2019, forcing the Air Force to find another satellite to cover the region in a few years.
“The Indian Ocean region has been a challenge for us,” Stoffler said, saying the Air Force appreciated Eumetsat’s decision to relocate Meteosat-8. “It doesn’t give us all the coverage we need, but I’m glad we were able to buy that time.”
Stoffler said the Air Force was reluctant to take responsibility for operating geostationary weather satellites. “It is certainly not our desire to get into this business, but the main thing is that we have assured access to this type of information,” he said.
Another option, he said, is to access images from Indian weather satellites in the region, provided the air force is confident it would still have access to the data. “That would probably be the most cost effective solution,” he said. “But having a US-owned and controlled satellite in that part of the world, certainly from my perspective, is ideal.”
If the Air Force goes ahead with its plans to take over GOES-14, Stoffler said the Air Force would not have to pay NOAA to access the satellite. However, it would bear the cost of setting up its own downlink station for the satellite in the Indian Ocean region. “We want this in place before Meteosat-8 expires,” he said.
Stoffler mentioned GOES-14 because this satellite, launched in 2009, is a spare satellite, GOES-13 running under GOES-East and GOES-15 running under GOES-West. However, a NOAA official on the panel said a final decision on which satellite to offer to the Air Force will not be made until GOES-16 completes commissioning at the end of this year. .
“Programmatic and technical details are in their infancy,” said Karen St. Germain, director of the Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service.
“We on the NOAA side have not committed to any particular bird,” she said. “What we said is that when we get to the operational commissioning point of GOES-16, we will then review the health of the constellation and negotiate with the Air Force.”
In a statement to SpaceNews On Jan. 26, NOAA spokesman John Leslie said the agreement between NOAA and the Air Force is intended to “formally establish cooperation in the field of space-based environmental monitoring data” generally between the agencies, in accordance with the guidelines provided by the Congress.
“All actual cooperative implementation agreements will be conducted within this general framework,” the statement added. “No implementation agreement has yet been reached.”