Tag Archive for: Satellite

TROPICS

Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1st and several new weather satellites (TROPICS) will collect valuable data to improve hurricane forecasting this year. 

Hurricanes, also called tropical cyclones, are large, rotating storms that form when water from the surface of the ocean in the tropics evaporates and condenses to form clouds and rain. Satellites provide vital data on current weather conditions, allowing meteorologists to predict the path and severity of these storms more accurately. 

Several recently launched satellites are providing more accurate data than ever, including the satellites of COSMIC-2, which launched in 2019. TROPICS, a network of six small satellites, will also launch in the next few months.

“We expect to have significant forecast improvement when we assimilate the data” from TROPICS, William Blackwell, an associate group leader at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory and the overall lead for the project, told Space.com.

Around 160 satellites currently collect data on Earth‘s weather and atmosphere and beam that information back to us. Those include satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), like the GOES series, and by NASA, such as the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, among others.

“There’s a whole list of things that could be used for tropical storm measurements,” Blackwell said.

A recent addition is the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate-2 (COSMIC-2), which is jointly run by NOAA, other U.S. agencies and Taiwan’s National Space Organization. An update to the original COSMIC satellites first launched in 2006, the project’s six satellites were launched on June 25, 2019.

The COSMIC-2 satellites rely on other satellites never intended to be used for weather observation: Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites orbiting high above Earth’s atmosphere. GPS satellites send out radio waves, which GPS systems use to determine location. The radio waves bend slightly when they enter the atmosphere, and COSMIC-2 can use data on how much those waves bend to get information on the temperature, pressure and humidity of the atmosphere.

Information needed to predict the path and severity of the storm is “keyed off the temperature and the moisture around the storm,” Blackwell said.

Though the COSMIC-2 satellites launched in 2019, it took 18 months of gradual correction for them to reach their exact intended orbits. The satellites underwent a series of software updates and reviews before being declared fully operational in October 2021.

The TROPICS mission, which is run by NASA in collaboration with several universities and private companies, will also involve six satellites. The satellites will measure microwaves, which are emitted and absorbed differently by different substances in the atmosphere; oxygen, for instance, absorbs microwaves at a different frequency than water vapor. The satellites use this method to collect accurate information on the temperature and moisture conditions around storms, particularly in the tropics, where hurricanes develop.

This method of measurement isn’t new; NOAA launched similar technology into orbit in 1979, Blackwell said. The major difference is that the TROPICS satellites will be much more efficient, taking many more measurements of the same storms throughout the day. A 2021 study found that this increased frequency would have a notable impact on the accuracy of hurricane prediction.

Although TROPICS launches are planned to begin in June, the TROPICS “qualification unit,” which was used to test the satellites’ design, was launched last June. The mission’s main six satellites will be launched in pairs in the coming months. Blackwell said the goal is to get them all up and working by the peak of Atlantic hurricane season. Though the satellites will start collecting data almost immediately, scientists will need another couple of months to optimize the technology from Earth, Blackwell said.

Research shows that climate change will likely increase the intensity of hurricanes, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. The goal of TROPICS, Blackwell said, is to better simulate how the environment of the tropics affects the paths and intensities of hurricanes, as that information could become increasingly crucial.

“If you ask the question of all the measurements that feed … weather prediction models, which ones give the biggest impact,” Blackwell said, “the answer to that question is the microwaves.”

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) said the 10-year deals with three companies are the agency’s largest ever commercial contracting effort

The NRO called these awards the agency’s “largest-ever commercial imagery contracting effort.”

Maxar’s deal is worth more than $3.2 billion over the decade. BlackSky’s contract has options worth up to $1 billion. Planet Labs has not yet disclosed the value of its contract.

“These contracts mark a historic expansion of the NRO’s acquisition of commercial imagery to meet increasing customer demands with greater capacity,” said the agency.

The contracts have a five-year base period of performance with options to extend up to 10 years. “NRO policy prohibits public statements of contract values. However, we can say the requirements have grown since EnhancedView and the contract scope and value have also grown,” a spokesperson said.

EnhancedView was a single-vendor agreement signed with Maxar in 2010 worth about $300 million a year for access to the company’s high-resolution imagery satellites and image archive. 

The EnhancedView arrangement is now being replaced with the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer (EOCL) contract shared by three vendors.

Maxar said its EOCL contract is worth up to $3.24 billion over the decade, with a firm five-year base commitment worth $1.5 billion and options estimated at $1.74 billion.

Under EOCL, “Maxar will continue to provide high-resolution commercial satellite imagery services to the NRO for use across the U.S. defense and intelligence community,” the company said.

The new contract gives the NRO access to the company’s current WorldView and GeoEye four-satellite constellation and to six new Legion satellites that have not yet been launched.

Maxar said the EOCL contract is “flexible and allows for growth to consider additional capacity from the Legion satellites when they are operational.” There is a $40 million option in year five of Maxar’s EOCL contract, bringing the potential value for year five to $340 million. 

BlackSky said the starting value of its EOCL agreement is $85.5 million and the total contract options are worth $1 billion over the 10-year period. 

NRO market research

The three companies selected for the EOCL procurement were expected to win. The NRO for several years had signaled its intent to expand the pool of imagery providers and in November issued the final EOCL request for bids after extensive market research, including study contracts awarded in 2019 to BlackSky, Maxar and Planet. The study contracts gave the NRO access to the companies’ business plans, finances and projected capacity of their satellite constellations.

“Commercial imagery is a valuable tool for information sharing and decision making,” said Pete Muend, director of NRO’s commercial systems program office. “EOCL allows us to meet a larger number of customer requirements more quickly than ever before and dedicate national systems to the most challenging and sensitive missions.”

Under the EOCL, the NRO will purchase a variety of imagery products, including foundation data and traditional imagery, as well as shortwave infrared, nighttime, and non-Earth imaging, and direct downlink to U.S. military remote ground terminals. Under this contract the NRO also can purchase “point collection” services where the government can task a commercial satellite to collect images over a particular spot. Non-Earth imaging of objects in space is a new capability that the NRO is buying that takes advantage of commercial satellites’ space situational awareness sensors. 

“Maxar has been a trusted U.S. government partner for more than two decades, and we’re proud to continue to serve that mission under EOCL,” said Maxar’s president and CEO Dan Jablonsky. 

 Planet Labs said its contract will give the NRO access to Planet’s high and medium resolution satellite imagery. Once in orbit and operational, users will also have access to Planet’s next generation, rapid revisit Pelican fleet. The contract also makes available Planet’s archive of over 2,000 images of every point on Earth dating back to 2009.

“We have long held the conviction that unclassified commercial satellite imagery not only equips the government with differentiated and innovative intelligence capabilities, but also increases transparency and accountability that advances global security, as well as trust between government and citizens,” said Planet’s co-founder and chief strategy officer Robbie Schingler.

Planet, which became a publicly traded company in December after closing a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, operates more than 200 imaging satellites. BlackSky also went public in September via a SPAC merger.

Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky, told SpaceNews that the NRO’s contract is a strong endorsement of the company’s “dynamic monitoring, high frequency imagery services. It goes beyond what was done in the past with just foundational imagery.” The company operates 14 imaging satellites.

O’Toole said $72 million of the initial $85.5 million award is for services to be provided in the first two years of the contract. “So it’s a substantial expansion from where we were and a great start for a long term program that has a pretty big upside of up to a billion dollars.”

Leaders

Leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia have agreed to launch a satellite-based initiative to help countries in the Indo-Pacific region track illegal fishing and other suspicious maritime activities.

The maritime monitoring pledge is part of a broader set of peace, security, science and technology agreements reached during the four-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s  May 24 summit in Japan’s capital, Tokyo. Because the Quad is a U.S.-led security forum aimed at countering China, the monitoring effort is likely to focus on China’s maritime activities in the region.

“We strongly oppose any coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo and increase tensions in the area, such as the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities,” the leaders said in a joint statement released after their meeting. The statement did not explicitly name China. They said the satellite-based maritime domain awareness initiative will “promote stability and prosperity in our seas and oceans.”

In comments to reporters May 24, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the summit was to discuss and advance “practical cooperation” in the Indo-Pacific region, not to target any particular country, the South China Morning Post reported. But the prime minister noted that the four countries expressed “grave concern” over “China unilaterally changing the status quo in the East and South China Seas.”

Along with Biden, who is on his first tour of Asia as U.S. president, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese flew to Japan for the day-long meeting. The leaders of the four nations last met in person in September, in Washington.

On top of this, the four leaders agreed to improve public access to Earth-observation satellite data and applications by opening a “Quad Satellite Data Portal” that aggregates links to respective national satellite data resources. This overture is part of efforts they seek to address global challenges such as climate change with space-related applications and technologies.

“Space-related applications and technologies can also contribute to addressing common challenges such as climate change, disaster preparedness and response, and sustainable uses of oceans and marine resources,” they said in the statement. “We will work together to develop space applications, including in the area of Earth observations, and provide capacity building support to countries in the region, including with regards to partnering on using space capabilities to respond to extreme precipitation events.” 

The leaders also agreed to hold joint workshops to promote rules, norms, guidelines and principles for the sustainable use of space.

Transporter-5

SpaceX’s Transporter-5 mission launched several dozen payloads on its fifth dedicated rideshare mission May 25, illustrating the continued demand for such missions even as dedicated small launch vehicles emerge.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA at 2:35 p.m. Eastern. The rocket’s booster, flying its eighth mission, landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight and a half minutes after liftoff.

The Transporter-5 mission carried 59 payloads, which SpaceX described as including satellites, orbital transfer vehicles and non-deploying hosted payloads. The latter included Nanoracks’ Outpost Mars Demo 1 experiment to test technologies for cutting into upper stages.

Among the satellites that Transporter-5 deployed into sun-synchronous orbit, rideshare aggregator Exolaunch accounted for 21 satellites, including satellites for Iceye, Satellogic and Spire. Smallsat manufacturer Terran Orbital flew satellites for several customers, such as Fleet, GeoOptics and NASA.

Other companies that had satellites on Transporter-5 are HawkEye 360, which flew another cluster of three radio-frequency intelligence satellites; GHGSat, which launched three satellites to monitor greenhouse gas emissions; and Umbra, which launched a synthetic aperture radar imaging satellite.

The mission carried several orbital transfer vehicles, including the first from Momentus. Its Vigoride-3 tug carried payloads for two customers, FOSSA Systems and Orbit NTNU, but is principally a technology demonstration of the tug itself and its propulsion system, which uses a technology called microwave electrothermal thruster (MET).

“Testing the MET on this first Vigoride flight is one of the important tasks that we plan to conduct as we continue to refine and improve its performance,” John Rood, chief executive of Momentus, said in a statement after the launch. The launch marked a culmination of not just technical development of the tug but also securing regulatory approvals after the government blocked two attempts to fly a Vigoride tug last year on other Transporter rideshare missions.

D-Orbit flew its own tug, an Ion Satellite Carrier mission called Infinite Blue, on Transporter-5. The tug will deploy two cubesat payloads and support two hosted payloads.

Spaceflight flew its Sherpa-AC vehicle on Transporter-5 as well. That version of Sherpa includes augmented attitude control capabilities that the company says makes it well-suited for flying hosted payloads. This vehicle carried two hosted payloads as well as three smallsats. SpaceX announced in March that it would sever ties with Spaceflight, but only after missions already manifested.

Transporter-5 was SpaceX’s fifth dedicated smallsat rideshare mission and the third this year, after Transporter-3 in January and Transporter-4 in April. The next rideshare mission, Transporter-6, is scheduled for October.

Demand for those missions remains strong. “SpaceX rideshare is getting fully booked,” said Max Haot, chief executive of Launcher, during a panel at Space Tech Expo here May 25. His company is developing its own orbital transfer vehicle, Orbiter, that will make its first flight on Transporter-6.

Launcher has booked Orbiter flights on several more Transporter missions in 2023, and he said those future Transporter missions are already filling up.

Orbital transfer vehicles can help bridge the gap, he said, between pure rideshare missions where payloads have little or no control on the orbit they’re placed in and dedicated smallsat launches like Rocket Lab’s Electron, which offers greater control but at a higher price. “We’ll be able to make SpaceX rideshare more useful.”

Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services at Rocket Lab, acknowledged that Electron costs more than a SpaceX rideshare, but took issue with Haot’s claim the difference was a factor of 10. Rocket Lab has charged up to $10 million for an Electron launch, in the case of the upcoming NASA CAPSTONE lunar cubesat mission, although some commercial launches are less expensive. SpaceX currently charges $1.1 million for 200 kilograms of rideshare payload.

“They are more expensive because we are offering a service that delivers the payloads exactly where they want to go when they want to be there, and that’s where the customers will pay a premium,” he said on the panel. “There’s not a 10 times differential in price, though.”