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NASA, NOAA pick familiar design for new satellite

Posted: June 28, 2010

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NASA plans to purchase a clone of a stopgap weather satellite to be the first member of a new civilian fleet of environmental platforms, but the future of U.S. climate-monitoring spacecraft hinges on congressional approval of a White House budget proposal to pay for the new program, a government official said Monday.

Artist's concept of the NPP satellite, the new baseline for the first member of the Joint Polar Satellite System. Credit: NOAA
The new satellite will help replace a troubled program suspended by the Obama administration in February after schedule and budget woes.

Scheduled to launch in 2014, the new spacecraft will be identical to the NPOESS Preparatory Project platform under construction at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.

"NASA will initiate the procurement and has indicated in a synopsis its intent to go with a sole source acquisition from Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.," said Mary Kicza, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's satellite and information service.

The craft will be the pioneer of the Joint Polar Satellite System, a fleet of weather satellites conceived in February to replace the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environment Satellite System, or NPOESS, which would have joined civil and military weather satellites into one program.

NPOESS was canned by the White House after falling behind schedule and reaching a projected program life-cycle cost of more than $15 billion. The program's tri-agency partnership, consisting of NOAA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force, was criticized by independent review boards.

NOAA officials are confident the JPSS program can get off the ground by the time the first NPOESS platform would have launched, and at a fraction of the cost.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Kicza said the JPSS 1 satellite will carry the same instruments and collect the same data as the NPP spacecraft.

Building a second NPP satellite carries less risk than developing new spacecraft and instruments, according to Kicza.

"With an NPP bus that has already been built, with the instruments nearly all integrated, and with the ground systems prepared to support to NPP, that approach was the lowest risk," Kicza said.

Ball is building NPP under the management of Northrop Grumman Corp., the prime contractor for the NPOESS program.

"We're encouraged by the NOAA/NASA decision to procure an NPP-clone to fulfill the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)," Ball Aerospace said in a written statement. "We feel this is the best approach to meet the 2014 mission requirement and is clearly in the best interest of the civil weather and climate community, as well as the taxpayer."

NPP's own development has been pushed back by delays in instrument design and testing, slipping its launch until at least September 2011.

The Cross-track Infrared Sounder, or CrIS, shipped to Ball Aerospace's factory in Colorado June 18, according to its builder, ITT Geospatial Systems. Testing uncovered a voltage issue with some electronic components on CrIS, forcing NPP's most recent delay from January 2011 to next fall.

The NPP spacecraft at Ball's facility in Boulder, Colo. Credit: Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.
NASA leads spacecraft acquisition and launch services for U.S. civil weather satellites. NOAA oversees the programs and operates the spacecraft once they are in orbit.

The Obama administration proposed spending $1.1 billion on the new JPSS program in fiscal year 2011, but the funds won't be available if Congress does not act on upcoming appropriations bills.

If Congress passes a continuing resolution, which would keep next year's NOAA budget at roughly 2010 levels, the agency is prepared to request an exemption through the White House budget office to pay for the program, according to Kicza.

It's a matter of urgency for NOAA, which is already planning to place the NPP satellite in the agency's operational constellation of polar-orbiting weather satellites. NPP was originally designed to be a technology demonstrator and risk-reduction mission for the NPOESS satellites, but delays in the program forced NPP into a primarily climate-monitoring role.

"Continuity for critical weather and climate observations is a priority for the nation," Kicza said.

JPSS will continue a 50-year-long series of satellites providing climate data from polar orbit.

NOAA is responsible for satellites in an "afternoon" orbit, meaning they pass over equator at roughly 1:30 p.m. local time on each trip around Earth. The agency's European counterpart, Eumetsat, shares data with the United States from its satellites in a mid-morning orbit. The Air Force's Defense Meteorological Satellite Program covers an early morning orbit.

Forecasters use polar-orbiting satellite data in medium- and long-range outlooks, hurricane tracking, winter storm predictions, and climate records.

NOAA and NASA have not decided how to procure a second JPSS satellite for launch in 2018. Kicza said the decision could depend on the Air Force, which is considering keeping Northrop Grumman as the contractor for the next program after the military launches its final two DMSP satellites.

"We've been cognizant of their efforts to study their requirements, and we'll be aware of how they're going forward in terms of our decisions for the JPSS 2 spacecraft," Kicza said. "Clearly, Northrop has the capability to provide spacecraft buses, so that's an option for us as we move forward and explore our options for the JPSS 2 spacecraft."