White House Dissolves NPOESS Partnership in Blow to Northrop

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WASHINGTON — The White House announced Feb. 1 it will end a troubled civil-military weather satellite program and instead pursue two separate lines of polar-orbiting satellites to serve military and civilian users.

Terminating the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is a blow to prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles, which was to supply the satellite platforms and integrate the overall system. The NPOESS program will now use a different satellite platform, but it remains to be seen whether Northrop Grumman will retain oversight responsibility for the instruments and for integrating the space and ground segments.

The NPOESS program has for years been plagued with cost overruns and delays, and the program’s tri-agency management structure has been cited as a major contributor to the problem. NPOESS had been managed by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with NASA as a junior partner. That arrangement has now been scrapped.

Under the White House’s new plan, the Air Force will build satellites that will fly in the so-called morning orbit to primarily serve military needs, according to an outline released Feb. 1 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. NOAA will fund development of satellites that will fly in the so-called afternoon orbit to primarily provide civil weather forecasting and climate monitoring data.

Plans to launch a precursor satellite dubbed the NPOESS Preparatory Project will not be affected, and that satellite is on track for a September 2011 launch, the document said. That satellite will fly key NPOESS sensors but on a smaller platform supplied by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo.

The United States will continue to rely on the European Metop satellites for weather data in the so-called mid-morning orbit, the document said.

Jane Lubchenco, who was confirmed as NOAA administrator in March 2009, said the new plan is the best way to ensure weather and climate data continuity.

“From the very early days of my nomination as NOAA administrator and undersecretary of commerce, it was pretty clear to me the NPOESS program had very significant challenges and that there was strong urgency in finding ways to ensure the continuity of climate and weather information from the polar-orbiting satellites just because that information is so essential to forecasting weather and severe storms and understanding climate change,” Lubchenco said in a Feb. 2 interview. “This partitioning will enable both partners to do what they do well and satisfy the primary goals of their missions.”

NOAA’s new satellite program, dubbed the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), will be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., the document said. NOAA has requested $1.06 billion for JPSS in 2011 and plans to request an additional $3.47 billion over the four following years, agency budget documents show.

The JPSS spacecraft will “consist of platforms based on the [NPOESS Preparatory Project] satellite,” the White House document said. However, it has not been decided whether NOAA will contract with Ball Aerospace to build the satellite platforms or hold an open competition to build them, Mary Glackin, NOAA’s deputy under secretary for oceans and atmosphere, said in a Feb. 2 interview.

NOAA plans to begin procurement of the first JPSS spacecraft this year, with a notional launch date of 2015, according to documents that accompanied NOAA’s 2011 $5.6 billion budget request to Congress. The first satellite will host some of the sensors that were planned for the first NPOESS satellite including: the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite; Cross-track Infrared Sounder; Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder; Ozone Mapping and Profiling Suite; and Cloud and Earth Radiant Energy System instrument.

As the NPOESS prime contractor, Northrop Grumman currently oversees the development of these instruments by several contractors. While no decisions have been made, NOAA would like to see responsibility for these instruments shifted to Goddard, Glackin said.

“We would be looking to have direct management through NASA of the prime instrument contracts here, because we feel we would be in a better position to bring the government expertise directly to bear on the instrument developments,” Glackin said. “The president’s budget provides the funds for NOAA to take over development of those key instruments.”

With these and other decisions still to be made, it is too early to assess the impact to Northrop Grumman of the NPOESS program changes, company spokesman Lon Rains said.

“Northrop Grumman is aware of our customers’ plan to restructure the NPOESS program,” Rains said in a Feb. 2 e-mail. “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.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force has not yet devised plans for its future weather satellites because its current-generation spacecraft will not require replacing until late in the decade. The service has two Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft scheduled to launch in 2012 and 2014. The Air Force requested $351.8 million in 2011 for a program that budget documents identified as NPOESS, but no plans were detailed.

In addition to operating its own weather satellites, NOAA has for the last decade operated the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites for the Air Force. The agency plans to continue operating the new civil and military weather satellites with a common ground system, and the first version of the NPOESS ground system that will fly the NPOESS Preparatory Project satellite has been delivered, Glackin said. Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems of Aurora, Colo., is the lead developer of the NPOESS ground segment.

The NPOESS program arose from a 1994 decision by the administration of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton to consolidate the polar-orbiting weather satellite systems that traditionally had been built and operated separately by NOAA and the Air Force. The merger was hailed at the time as a money-saver, but NPOESS wound up overrunning its original cost estimates by several billion dollars.

Giving NOAA responsibility for the remnants of NPOESS is the primary driver of a 2011 budget request for the agency’s satellite operating division, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, of $2.02 billion, an  $831 million increase from what was appropriated for 2010. In previous years, the Air Force and NOAA evenly divided annual funding responsibility for NPOESS.

The satellite shop’s other major development effort, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R program, would receive $730 million next year under the White House request. This is $118 million less than the agency anticipated requesting at this time last year for 2011.

NOAA’s 2011 budget request also includes:

  • $50 million to continue development of the Jason-3 altimetry satellite in partnership with Europe’s meteorological satellite agency, Eumetsat.
  • $49.4 million to continue development of several climate sensors that were demanifested from NPOESS when it was restructured in 2006.
  • $9.5 million to refurbish NASA’s shelved Deep Space Climate Observatory to provide data on solar wind and geomagnetic storms.
  • $3.7 million to begin development of a GPS radio occultation constellation in partnership with Taiwan for atmospheric profiling.