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Budget slashes NPOESS weather satellite program

Posted: February 1, 2010

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The White House is proposing major changes of the U.S. government's troubled next-generation weather satellites, cutting the NPOESS program in half and directing NOAA and the Air Force to continue developing their own weather observatories.

Artist's concept of an NPOESS satellite. Credit: Northrop Grumman
The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System is managed by NOAA, the Air Force and NASA, aiming to combine military and civilian weather satellite fleets to streamline costs and improve service.

But projected costs of the NPOESS program have more than doubled to $13.9 billion and the launch of the first satellite has slipped five years to 2014.

"Today the White House is announcing that NOAA and the Air Force would no longer continue to jointly procure the polar-orbiting satellite system called NPOESS," the Office of Science and Technology Policy's budget summary stated.

The agencies will still share coverage responsibilities, but NOAA and the Air Force will pursue their own procurements for satellites.

"NOAA and the Air Force have already begun to move into a transition period during which the current joint procurement will end," science officials wrote in a statement.

Northrop Grumman Corp. is the prime contractor for the NPOESS satellites.

"Northrop Grumman is aware of its customers' plan to restructure the NPOESS program," a company spokesperson said Monday. "The details of this restructuring and how it will impact future activities are still to be determined. During the transition period, the company and NPOESS industry team will continue its progress on the existing program."

A joint team of NOAA and NASA will be responsible for covering the afternoon orbit, while the Pentagon will take over the morning orbit. Polar-orbiting weather satellites are divided into two orbiting groups to maximize global coverage.

"The agencies will continue to partner in those areas that have been successful in the past, such as a shared ground system. The restructured programs will also eliminate the NPOESS tri-agency structure that that has made management and oversight difficult, contributing to the poor performance of the program," the budget document said.

NOAA's half of the system, with help from NASA, will be called the Joint Polar Satellite System, consisting of multiple spacecraft based on the NPOESS Preparatory Project, a demonstration and gapfiller satellite scheduled for launch in September 2011.

The military has two more heritage Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites scheduled for launch in 2012 and 2014. Budget documents did not indicate whether the Air Force would build more DMSP platforms or develop a more advanced satellite system.

The NPP spacecraft under construction. Credit: Ball Aerospace
"These changes to the NPOESS program will better ensure continuity of crucial civil climate and weather data in the future," officials wrote in the budget overview. "A main focus remains continuity of polar-orbiting satellite data. Decisions on future satellite programs will be made to ensure the best plan for continuity of data."

According to government officials, the new Joint Polar Satellite System would be similar in scope and magnitude to the NASA-developed Earth Observing System, which includes flagship remote sensing satellites.

The Obama administration also vowed to create more accurate cost estimates of the new JPSS program to an 80 percent confidence level. Inaccurate and often-changing cost projections were a significant challenge for NPOESS.

A presidential task force has investigated the NPOESS program since August.

The White House envisions NASA providing an acquisition and technical oversight role for the JPSS constellation, similar to the partnership between NOAA and NASA for the POES and GOES weather satellites.

Previous agreements with EUMETSAT, the European weather satellite operator, defined responsibilities for an international fleet of weather observatories. Under the agreement, EUMETSAT would cover the morning orbit and NPOESS spacecraft would fly in the afternoon orbit.

The partnership with EUMETSAT "will continue to be a cornerstone of our polar-orbiting constellation," the budget document stated.