NOAA Digs In on Polar Follow-on Plan Despite Cloudy Funding Outlook

by

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not intend to rework its plan for developing and deploying the three polar-orbiting weather satellites Congress is refusing to fund at the level the White House requested for 2016, the agency’s top satellite official said here July 28.

In February, the administration of President Barack Obama asked Congress for $380 million to start work on NOAA’s final three Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft, which the agency says are needed to maintain global coverage through 2038. But in separate appropriations bills crafted in June, the Senate provided less than half of that while the House provided nothing.

Nonetheless, Steve Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said the agency’s plan for the final leg of the JPSS program, called Polar Follow-on, remains the one and only plan.
Polar Follow-on “is still part of the program, it is something we’re working to, and defending, and supporting,” Volz said here at the Department of Commerce Library, where he spoke alongside his boss, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, during a panel discussion titled “10 Years Since Hurricane Katrina: Progress in Hurricane Modeling, Prediction, Decision Support and Coastal Resilience.”

The discussion took place just days before Congress was set to leave town for its annual August recess. The House in June passed its spending bill for agencies including NOAA and its satellite procurement agent, NASA, but partisan politics prevented a floor vote on the Senate’s version.

Both bills would fully fund NOAA’s $810 million request for the JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 weather satellites, which are in a NOAA account that is separate from the Polar Follow-on program. Those satellites, slated to launch in 2017 and 2021, respectively, will carry the same instrument payload as the Suomi NPP satellite now in orbit and are expected to maintain coverage through 2025.

Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, built Suomi-NPP and is building JPSS-1. Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, is under contract to build JPSS-2, and possibly JPSS-3 and JPSS-4.
Despite being close virtual copies of JPSS-2, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 are budgeted under NOAA’s Polar Follow-on account, which also includes a smaller, single-sensor polar-orbiter — not part of Orbital ATK’s contract — to back up the core satellites.

The current JPSS production run has not been without its difficulties, most recently with a sensor being built by Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Florida, and slated to fly on JPSS-2. NASA in June ordered the company to stop work on the sensor, which is being managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and that directive remains in place.

NASA and Harris “are working through, rather productively, on the go-forward plan on that stop-work notice,” Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, told the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee July 27 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “I won’t be saying any more about it and I won’t be answering any questions about it,” he said, adding that the sensor remains on track for an April 2019 delivery to Orbital ATK’s Gilbert, Arizona, satellite factory.

“Harris provided a fully compliant response that addressed NASA Langley’s concerns June 29 and we are waiting for a decision,” Harris Corp. spokeswoman Kristin Jones wrote in a July 30 email.