The Air Force is rushing to prepare a new generation of weather satellites. It recently decommissioned one of five existing satellites as part of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. The other four are working years longer than expected. For a progress report Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to Allison Barto, Ball Aerospace Program Manager, and Charlotte Gerhart, Low Earth Orbit Division Chief, Space Force Space and Missile Systems Center.
Tom Temin: Let’s start with what’s happening now. These satellites that are up there, the DMSP, who do they belong to and what do they do? Let’s start there.
Charlotte Gerhard: Thanks Tom. This is Charlotte and I’m going to talk to the DMSP satellites. As you said, there are four operational satellites, they belong to the US Space Force. These satellites measure, among other things, the speed and direction of the wind at the surface of the ocean. And that’s what the WSFM satellite follow-up, Weather System Follow-on Microwave, will address. There is no specific timetable for the end of life of these DMSP satellites. As we have done with previous satellites, we will leave them running as long as they are alive.
Tom Temin: So as long as they send data, you’ll say, okay, we’ll take it.
Charlotte Gerhard: That’s right.
Tom Temin: And this data is used mainly for the operations of the air force or also other armed services, or what is the data finally put into use?
Charlotte Gerhard: The data is used by all the services of the armed forces. It is also made available to NOAA, NASA and international partners for use in weather models around the world.
Tom Temin: And you say there’s no specific timetable by which you’ll use the current satellites for as long as possible, but sometimes they die, and you’ve taken one out of service. So what if, if you’re down to four, and what if you’re down to three? At some point you have to get started here, right?
Charlotte Gerhard: So that’s the intent. That’s why we bought tracking satellites, WSFM. And the intention is to launch them as soon as possible so that we can continue to have this operational capability.
Tom Temin: And Allison, that’s what your business is about, is building them.
Allison Barto: Absolutely. We have been working on designing the next generation of these satellites since 2018.
Tom Temin: And I imagine they are more than just replacements due to advancements in technology, imaging, sensing, bandwidth, etc. Give us an idea of when the new ones will eventually replace the existing ones, what could be added to the abilities?
Allison Barto: Absolutely. Were primarily working on processing ocean surface factor winds, as well as ice concentrations, a number of other critical weather parameters with these new satellites. The satellite that we are building now, WSFM, this is the main of each instrument is really a new generation of a microwave instrument that we previously built for NASA called GMI. This new satellite adds digital channels to the instrument to allow us to obtain these wind directions.
Tom Temin: I get it. This really brings me to a question I had. I recently spoke to NASA and also the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who all have satellite programs for various looks at different aspects of the earth, in addition to what they look at from space, but just looking at the earth and so on. Is there generally coordination between all of these agencies that deal with wind, weather, and ice and all of those things, so there’s maybe less redundancy and you can complement you more? Charlotte?
Charlotte Gerhard: Yes, that’s a great question. The answer is absolutely. We coordinate very closely with the whole agency so that our systems are not repeatable, not redundant, but complementary.
Tom Temin: What is the big challenge in building a new satellite? What does it take so that you don’t just reproduce the old? I always wondered why, when the B-52s died, we would build more – well, I was told why that’s not practical. But in the satellites, things always move, don’t they?
Charlotte Gerhard: It’s true. It’s always on the move. The challenge is to keep up with the evolution of technology. So the technology that went into the GMI sensor that Allison referred to is no longer available. We have the next generation of technology and making sure that technology works and that we take full advantage of it to get more capacity is probably one of the biggest challenges. Allison, do you have anything to add?
Allison Barto: I think you said it well. We always want to make sure, when we build something for the space, that we balance the combination of using tried and tested heritage designs and processes, and pushing the boundaries just enough to take advantage of the technological advances that have become possible as time goes on.
Tom Temin: And while some of these technologies for collecting and measuring images and so on can work in space or on earth, but there are particular challenges that have to harden them, I guess because you can’t mount and solder a new transistor or something – I’m going out with myself – once they’re on. So what are the special challenges and special technologies that are needed for the satellite deployment of technology that could have dual uses on Earth?
Allison Barto: I think you treated him well, huh. We need to make sure that any hardware we install in space is able to withstand the environment it sees there, which is harsher than what we have experienced in the field. So we have to make sure that both hardware is able to work in that environment, and then also, as you mentioned, we can’t fix things. So we need to make sure that everything we put into space has been thoroughly tested and verified before launch so that we can be sure it will be able to both perform when in orbit and last until beyond its design. life.
Tom Temin: And finally, how will they get into orbit? What is the mechanism there?
Charlotte Gerhard: These will be launched on rockets purchased by the US Space Force from the Space and Missile System Center. The satellite weighs about 1200 kilograms. It is placed in an orbit at an altitude of 130 kilometers and will be launched from Vandenberg. We have not yet identified the specific launcher, his selection is expected in about a year.
Tom Temin: So 1200 kilograms is bigger than a bread box, right?
Charlotte Gerhard: It is two meters high. So about seven feet high and about one meter in diameter. And Allison, you can correct me if I have my dimensions.
Allison Barto: Yes, it’s a little bigger than that. Thus, the main dish which collects the signal measures 1.8 meters in diameter. And in order to adapt well to a variety of launcher options, this dish is stowed for launch so that we have as compact a satellite as possible in the launcher. And then we deploy this large dish on a set of poles in position so that we can receive the signals and bounce those signals back into our electronics to then process them into the data that we need. So it’s quite important, as I said before, that this is based on NASA’s historic GMI instrument. This instrument is about 40% larger than the previous one. So it’s not trivial when you look at the full stack of the spacecraft plus the deployed instrument.
Tom Temin: (jokingly) And before they started, you took a picture of a family member in there or you signed the inside of a piece of aluminum foil or something.
Allison Barto: We dont do. We don’t want to cause space debris.
Tom Temin: I get it. And then they would know who did it if it happened later, right?
Allison Barto: To the right. Just our own memories that we were involved and had our fingerprints on it.
Tom Temin: A light. Allison Barto is a program manager at Ball Aerospace. Thanks for joining me.
Allison Barto: Absolutely. Thank you.
Tom Temin: And Charlotte Gerhart is chief of the low Earth orbit division at the Space Force Space and Missile System Center. Mrs Gerhart. Thanks for joining me.
Charlotte Gerhard: Thanks Tom.