Amid JPSS Changes, Free Flyer-1 Payload Remains the Same

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WASHINGTON — If the U.S. Congress approves the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) plan to trim costs in its next-generation civilian polar-orbiting weather satellite program, one detail that will not change is the payload for the Free Flyer-1 satellite slated to launch in 2016.

In the wake of the 2010 cancellation of a civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System program, NOAA is working on the civil-only Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). The first operational weather satellite in this program, JPSS-1, is set to launch in 2016 aboard one of the remaining Delta 2 rockets in United Launch Alliance’s inventory.

However, not all of the instruments intended for the canceled civil-military program will fit on the JPSS-1. For that reason NOAA conceived Free Flyer-1, a polar orbiter also set to launch around the same time.

Free Flyer-1 will include the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor-1, Advanced Data Collection System-1, and Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking-1, according to NOAA spokesman John Leslie. 

These are the same Free Flyer-1 payloads that Harry Cikanek, NOAA’s JPSS program director, described in an interview in September.

NOAA has not yet identified the launch vehicle for Free Flyer-1. Neither Leslie nor NASA spokesman George Diller immediately replied to requests for comment April 30 about Free Flyer-1’s launch arrangements.

As part of a broader effort to rein in JPSS costs, NOAA’s 2014 budget request called for turning the Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System-C, Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite-Limb and one of the two Total Solar Irradiance Sensor instruments originally manifest for flight on JPSS-program satellites over to NASA. 

That would relieve some of the budgetary pressure on NOAA, dropping the expected cost to that agency for running the JPSS program through 2028 to roughly $11 billion. Last year, NOAA estimated the effort would cost closer to $13 billion.

The budget request also put Free Flyer-1 into a dedicated spending account called “Polar Free Flyer.” Back in September, NOAA thought the JPSS program might include two dedicated Free Flyer satellites. That idea was killed in the 2014 budget request.

“NOAA’s budget request does not fund the Free Flyer-2 satellite mission,” Leslie said.

Back in September, Cicanek said NOAA had not finalized either an instrument payload or launch date for Free Flyer-2. The climate instruments the White House wants to transfer to NASA had been candidate payloads.

The sensors manifested for Free Flyer-1 are, for the most part, not weather instruments.

The Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking-1 is NOAA’s contribution to the international Cospas-Sarsat emergency search and rescue system.

The Advanced Data Collection System, a payload provided by the French space agency CNES, will monitor data gathered by sensors attached to ocean buoys and marine animals.

Despite NOAA’s plan to exorcise climate sensors from JPSS, at least one sensor with climate science applications remains in the program as part of Free Flyer-1: the Total Solar Irradiance Sensor. 

This NASA instrument is intended to collect data to continue a 33-year record of solar energy that reaches Earth. However, the Free Flyer-1 solar sensor will not be the next of its type to reach space: a flight-spare solar irradiance monitor provided by NASA is currently slated to launch this year on the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3 experimental satellite.