HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – A Hanscom team recently awarded a $19.3 million contract to support a constellation of high-tech weather satellites capable of observing precipitation and storm structures from space.
As part of the agreement, Boston-based meteorological intelligence company Tomorrow.io will provide the Aerospace Management Systems Division, headquartered here, with three-dimensional global weather and ocean data. This data can be used to enhance numerical weather modeling, machine learning programs, and near-term forecast capabilities.
“Global environmental data is essential to effective mission planning and execution of air and ground operations,” said John Dreher, materiel leader, Weather Systems Branch. “This satellite constellation partnership with Tomorrow.io will give Air Force weather operators a vastly improved awareness of current and forecasted weather conditions.”
According to Lt. Col. Andrew Travis, chief of staff meteorology, Weather Systems Branch, a number of Next-Generation Radar, or NEXRAD, systems are providing weather coverage in the United States and select locations overseas. These systems currently provide updates on precipitation type, intensity, storm dynamics, freezing levels, and severe weather indication, which is critical for weather forecasters, air traffic controllers, and pilots to ensure aviation safety, he said.
“Despite some radar coverage in Europe and parts of Asia, large swaths of the globe, including over oceans and polar regions, lack weather-sensing capabilities,” he said. “This new constellation can help close the sensing gap in those areas.”
Currently, NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement satellite is the only spaceborne radar to measure precipitation from space. With one satellite, hourly global precipitation coverage is impossible, as it takes numerous orbits around the Earth to sample the entire globe, said Travis. However, with a constellation of satellites, global sampling can be completed in regular time intervals.
“Not only can this global precipitation coverage improve Air Force weather forecasts, but it can also enhance climate monitoring capabilities, like extreme rainfall and disaster area identification,” he said. “It can also be used to monitor a number of other conditions, like ground and terrain environments, which could be useful to other government agencies. There are truly a wide range of applications for this new capability.”
The team awarded the contract utilizing a Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, award through the AFVentures Strategic Funding Increase, or STRATFI, pilot program. STRATFI is a Department of Defense initiative focused on securing large-scale, strategic capabilities.
“It was challenging and rewarding to execute PEO Digital’s first-ever STRATFI SBIR award with a tight deadline,” said Capt. Scott Campbell, contracting officer, Weather Systems Branch. “Our mission-focused business leaders worked swiftly and innovatively to get the job done. I was fortunate and very happy to be a part of this exciting and successful experience.”
The division is also working with personnel from the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program to explore if other commercial data can supplement or even replace existing government sources. It is also performing space weather impact analyses, as well as researching the affect the data has on existing terrestrial numerical weather modeling capabilities.
Since 2017, Congress has appropriated funding to the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program in an effort to build the commercial weather industry’s support to the DOD and Department of Commerce with a focus on space-based environment monitoring.
Following the contract, division personnel are working with other Air Force organizations to develop a plan for integrating the data into the Air Force Weather Virtual Private Cloud.
Tomorrow.io expects to begin launching satellites in their weather intelligence platform by the end of 2022.