WASHINGTON — An independent review team, whose advice has already reshaped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program, is again urging major changes that could drive more work to the contractors building the nation’s next polar-orbiting weather-satellite constellation.
The team, led by former Martin Marietta Chief Executive A. Thomas Young, detailed its conclusions in a report dated Nov. 8 but provided to the press Nov. 13 in advance of a conference call with Young and Mary Kicza, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services.
On the call, Young said NOAA should immediately buy copies of the weather instruments already set to fly as part of the JPSS program and use them to convert the agency’s planned Polar Free Flyer satellite — currently booked to carry an emergency search-and-rescue transponder, a solar-radiation instrument and a French marine-buoy-tracking sensor — into a miniature afternoon-orbit weather satellite that could launch in time to address a looming coverage gap that could open as soon as 2017.
Young said NOAA should put at least three copies each of the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder and Cross-track Infrared Sounder “on contract as soon as possible with their current developers.” Northrop Grumman is building the microwave sounder for JPSS. Exelis Geospatial Systems is building the infrared sounder.
Young also said JPSS satellites, which NASA is procuring for NOAA to provide weather observations in the afternoon hours, should be ordered in bulk.
The next three JPSS spacecraft, beginning with the second in the series, should be procured “as an integrated program,” Young said. “Put all three of them under contract.” That contract, Young said, should also include options for three additional JPSS satellites.
Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is building the spacecraft for JPSS-1. NASA, which manages JPSS acquisition for NOAA, has not yet selected a spacecraft prime for JPSS-2.
Kicza said NOAA takes the team’s recommendations “very seriously,” but would not say whether the agency would implement any of the team’s proposed changes in 2014. Some of the agency’s plans would be revealed in future White House budget requests, the next of which is due in February and will contain proposed spending levels for 2015, Kicza said.
The last big changes to the JPSS program were part of the 2014 budget request released back in April. NOAA, on the advice of a 2012 report from the Young team, offloaded responsibility to NASA for some climate measurements that were to be made under the JPSS program. NOAA also booted the Polar Free Flyer out of the JPSS program, on the Young team’s advice that it was not critical for the constellation’s weather mission.
The current U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellite constellation would experience a gap in weather coverage when Suomi NPP, a Ball-built testbed satellite forced into an operational role, wraps up its notional five-year mission in 2016. The next satellite in the constellation, JPSS-1, is not set to launch until 2017. JPSS-2 would launch in 2022. That is extremely risky, Young said, because without other satellites in the production pipe, a JPSS-1 launch failure, or a premature end to that satellite’s mission, would obliterate U.S. afternoon-polar-orbiting measurements for years.