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NOAA’s Next-Gen Constellation Moves Forward

A satellite ground station in the Arctic, used to download data from weather satellites like NEON.
Credit: NOAA

As NOAA looks to the future of its weather satellite programs in the 2030s and beyond, it is making radical changes to its Low-Earth orbit (LEO) architecture in the face of emerging trends and capabilities. All current and previous LEO weather satellite programs have focused on relatively few large satellites. JPSS, the newest such system, consists of 3 satellites at a time to enable observing everywhere on earth twice per day and 5 satellites over its life (including a NASA precursor/demonstrator platform) to enable service into the early 2040s. With the rise and massive proliferation of small satellite constellations and dedicated small launch, many groups, including NOAA’s satellite branch (NESDIS),  are turning to distributed architectures to accomplish their missions quicker, cheaper, and more dynamically.

NEON (Near Earth Orbit Network), NOAA’s next generation LEO weather constellation, has many similarities to the Space Development Agency (SDA)’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture (PWSA) constellations, which Space Scout has covered previously. The PWSA is divided into “Layers”, each dedicated to a specific purpose, such as communications or missile tracking. NEON is divided into “Series”, each one a set of satellites in a certain orbit, carrying a specific instrument. The rapidity with which new series can be developed allows capabilities to be added over time, instead of having to be planned out in advance before the satellites can even start design, locking in the capabilities for the next 20-30 years. Similar to the SDA’s program, NEON will consist of many small satellites, each hosting a single instrument, developed and deployed rapidly in order to bring technology into service earlier, allow optimizing the constellation around sensors individually, and reduce life-cycle costs. Space Scout interviewed NOAA’s John Bateman for additional details.

“Since the Space Development Agency is fielding capabilities sooner than NOAA’s NEON program, we will be leveraging its developments and emerging system capabilities to enhance our development and deployment efforts,” he said, “While our missions are different, our “commercial space needs” are very much aligned with the need for ready access-to-space with new launch systems, commercial satellite ground stations, and small constellation approaches.” This “stepwise” development method allows focusing NOAAs low level of resources on what would be most impactful at any given time, instead of having to worry about continuity of all measurements in one project. Thus, at the moment only a demonstrator mission and Series One are defined at present.

The progression from the legacy POES system through Suomi NPP/JPSS and into NEON, including the substantial overlap between JPSS and NEON.
Credit: NOAA

The NEON concept is a radical departure from previous NOAA satellite programs on all levels, from design to procurement to operations, necessitating careful pathfinding and risk reduction to ensure a smooth process. Accordingly, the first project undertaken by the NEON program is QuickSounder. QuickSounder is a refurbished Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) development unit paired with a small satellite bus, launching in 2026. It will demonstrate the philosophy of rapid development and deployment and that such a mission can be put into operations quickly and effectively. ATMS is the same microwave sounder carried aboard JPSS, so QuickSounder will supplement and add greater redundancy to that constellation in addition to its strategic demonstration goal. It will be a vital proof that this rapid iteration and deployment is possible with NOAA management and payloads, which will be required for NEON to be successful. Once that proof is in hand, it will be off to races to develop and produce the first full scale component of the NEON system.

The ATMS Engineering Development Unit that will be flown on QuickSounder.
Credit: Northrop Grumman

Series 1, the first full-scale project performed under NEON, will carry the Sounder for Microwave-Base Applications (SMBA). Microwave sounders have the largest impact on weather forecasting of any space-based sensor, providing almost 80% of the data that goes into daily weather models. SMBA has already entered the formulation phase, with Phase A study contracts being awarded in August 2023. Series One is projected to begin launching in Fiscal Year 2031, before the final JPSS satellite launches. This “head start” will allow future series to be sequentially produced until JPSS is fully succeeded by the time of its projected retirement in the 2040s. Future series will follow the broad approach pioneered by QuickSounder and Series One, albeit with different instruments. NEON spacecraft will likely be in the 500 kg range, enabling either dedicated small launch or rideshare opportunities.

While Series 2 and beyond is not yet fully defined, it will encompass all of the measurements currently provided by JPSS, completing NEON’s primary goal of providing data continuity into the 2050s and beyond. Series 2 is notionally projected for deployment beginning in 2034 and Series 3 in 2038. While the measurements that NEON will provide will be determined by community outreach and engagement (such as through workshops and other events), the potential scope is far larger than JPSS. JPSS is focused on measuring vertical profiles of the atmosphere (or “soundings”), imaging of weather patterns and the earth’s surface, and tracking ozone, NEON’s scope also includes atmospheric composition, ocean coloration, sea levels, radar and microwave imaging, 3d wind mapping, and climatology measurements. This expanded scope moves NEON from simply a weather satellite program to becoming a true earth observation network, comparable to the EU’s Copernicus program – supplementing or replacing multiple other satellite programs such as COSMIC-2 and Jason-3.

Orbit plan for the NPOESS and MetOp systems as proposed, including the times of day they would pass overhead.
Credit: eoPortal

A big change needs a big cause, and for NEON, that cause may be the origin of JPSS. Advanced scientific satellite constellations, like all large aerospace projects, are often difficult to bring to operational status. JPSS grew out of the ashes of NPOESS, which was to be a combination of NOAA and the DOD’s polar weather satellite systems, but was canceled in 2010 after nearly 5 years of schedule slips and a doubling of the budget. JPSS-1 was delayed a further 3 years after this reconstitution, leaving the initial test satellite as the only operational platform for 6 years. A smaller, one instrument per platform approach that leans heavily on commercially proven buses, ground systems, and components enables the instrument itself to be the pacing item for a launch and to decouple instruments from each other. Elements can be launched as they are ready, preventing delays from holding back the entire group. The individual platforms and orbits can also be optimized for the instrument’s requirements. There is an inherent loss of control when so much is turned over to commercial entities, with associated risks of corner cutting or overpromising, but with SDA’s constellation in full swing and commercial satellite building, operations, and ground systems experience is significant.

After the difficult transition from the legacy satellites of decades past through NPOESS to JPSS, NOAA is following the DoD’s lead in turning to existing commercial capabilities and a more distributed system to decrease costs and flight cadence, increase data availability, and ultimately provide forecasters and the public a better idea of what’s coming next.

Acronym Glossary:

  • NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • NESDIS – National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service
  • NEON – Near Earth Orbit Network
  • SDA – Space Development Agency
  • PWSA – Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture
  • POES – Polar Operational Environmental Satellite
  • ATMS – Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder
  • SMBA – Sounder for Microwave-Based Applications
  • NPOESS – National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System
  • JPSS – Joint Polar Satellite System

Edited by Nik Alexander and Beverly Casillas

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