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Report urges NOAA to narrow focus of JPSS satellite

Posted: September 27, 2012

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NOAA should consider scaling back advanced instrumentation on the next U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellite to ensure the platform is ready to take over when the Suomi NPP spacecraft ends its mission, according to a report from an independent review team.

Artist's concept of the JPSS 1 satellite. Credit: Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp.
The review panel, chaired by former Lockheed Martin Corp. president A. Thomas Young, also found NOAA's oversight of its weather satellite programs dysfunctional, criticized the agency's decision-making, and cited an inefficient and confusing program management scheme with NASA on the Joint Polar Satellite System.

The report was publicly released Sept. 21.

The JPSS program was born out of the NPOESS office, which was disbanded in 2010 after scores of delays and cost growth as NASA, NOAA and the U.S. Air Force collaborated on next-generation polar-orbiting satellites.

None of the NPOESS missions got off the ground before the program was terminated, and NOAA and the Air Force went back to managing their own weather satellites.

The review board found NOAA's GOES-R geostationary satellite program in better shape than JPSS, but the report noted pressing budget concerns and said there was only a 48 percent chance the GOES-R spacecraft would meet its scheduled launch date in late 2015.

The report's sharpest criticisms were aimed at NOAA's management practices and the JPSS program, which targets launch of the agency's next polar-orbiting weather satellite by early 2017.

Based on the expected five-year lifetime of Suomi NPP, which launched in October 2011, the independent review team projected there would likely be a gap of at least 18 months between the end of NPP's mission and when JPSS 1 becomes operational.

An analysis included in a Government Accountability Office report in June also highlighted the risk of a potential data gap, which would diminish the accuracy and timeliness of weather prediction models used to support forecasting, especially three days or more ahead of time.

A launch mishap or early on-orbit failure of JPSS 1 could lead to a data gap of more than 5 years. The second JPSS satellite - JPSS 2 - is not scheduled for launch until 2022.

NOAA's plan calls for JPSS 1 to be a clone of the Suomi NPP observatory to reduce costs and simplify development, but the agency predicts the JPSS program will ultimately cost $12.9 billion. And the launch of JPSS 1, originally set for 2014, was delayed when NOAA received one-third of the JPSS program's expected funding in 2011.

The panel's report said NOAA provided little justification for the $12.9 billion cost figure - and it could not evaluate whether the number was too low, too high, or just right - and the report implored the agency to produce an independent cost estimate for the JPSS program.

The prime contractor for the JPSS 1 spacecraft is Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo.

The independent review team report said the JPSS mission should focus on observations needed for weather observation and monitoring of ozone. Other instruments included in the JPSS program, such as the Clouds and Earth's Radiant Energy System payload and the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, should be moved to another office, according to the report.

The review team favored a proposal to transfer the radiant energy and solar irradiance sensor to a NASA mission focused on Earth radiation, such as the proposed CLARREO observatory, which is high on the priority list of the Earth science community but has not received funding for full development.

NOAA's JPSS 1 satellite is slated to include the CERES instrument, while the agency plans to manifest the solar irradiance instrument on a separate free-flyer satellite for launch as soon as 2016 along with an advanced data collection payload and a search-and-rescue package, which come from France and Canada.

In order to maintain the schedule for the JPSS 1 satellite, NOAA charted plans for two small-to-medium-class free-flyer satellites with the solar irradiance detector and the search-and-rescue and data collection payloads.

But the independent review team recommended NOAA avoid manifesting the search-and-rescue and data collection systems on free-flyer spacecraft, while the solar irradiance sensor, which measures energy in Earth's atmosphere coming from the sun, should be carried on a NASA satellite, experts said.

The report also suggested NOAA look into replacing the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, on JPSS 1 if the 22-channel land, atmospheric and ocean camera continues experience delays, cost growth and technical problems.

The first VIIRS instrument is aboard the Suomi NPP satellite and returning valuable imagery, but four of its 22 channels are degraded. An investigation identified materials known as tungsten oxides on the surface of the instrument's mirror, which were deposited during the mirror coating process on the ground.

The second VIIRS unit has encountered workmanship and obsolescence issues, according to a GAO report released in June.

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA's administrator, wrote in a Sept. 18 memo she was directing the agency's satellite division to investigate alternatives for the JPSS radiation sensors, VIIRS, and the search-and-rescue and data collection payloads.

Lubchenco described the review team's results as "hard-hitting and valuable" and will allow a restructuring of the JPSS program to improve its chance of success.