WASHINGTON — If the U.S. government wants to add a small, polar-orbiting weather satellite to its launch manifest in 2016 — as an expert review team has recommended — at least one of the spacecraft’s two instruments could be delivered in time, an executive with instrument-builder Exelis Geospatial Systems said.

In a Nov. 8 report, a review panel led by former Martin Marietta Chief Executive A. Thomas Young advised the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to launch a “gap-filler” satellite as a hedge against the loss of either the current or next civilian polar-orbiting weather satellite — both of which are part of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) series of spacecraft NASA is procuring for NOAA.

The Young panel said this satellite should include both Exelis’ Cross-track Infrared Sounder and Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems’ Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder. Moreover, NOAA should order multiple copies of these weather instruments as a cost-saving measure, the panel said. The two instruments are among the five flying since late 2011 on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite, a NASA spacecraft conceived as an instrument testbed but pressed into an operational weather-forecasting role following the cancellation of the joint civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Satellite System. JPSS-1, essentially a copy of Suomi NPP, is slated to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in 2017 aboard one of the last United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rockets.

Eric Webster, vice president and director of weather systems at Rochester, N.Y.-based Exelis Geospatial, said the company expects to deliver JPSS-1’s Cross-track Infrared Sounder this fall.

However, the instrument need not fly on JPSS-1. NOAA could shift the next Cross-track Infrared Sounder and the next Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder onto a small satellite bus to create the Young panel’s gap-filler, Webster said.

The two instruments “fit on a smaller bus and on a smaller rocket, so that option is open,” Webster said in a Dec. 19 phone interview. If the Northrop instrument can also be delivered in time, a 2016 launch is within the realm of possibility, Webster said.

Thomas Delaney, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, declined to comment about whether the company could accelerate that delivery date. 

In a Jan. 3 email, NOAA spokesman David Miller said that when it came to JPSS instrument procurements “further decisions will be made in a series of steps focusing on longest lead items first.” He declined to be more specific, although he did say that NOAA is now working to finalize contracts for the five weather instruments that would fly on JPSS-2.

In 2011 and 2012, when NOAA finalized $655.5 million worth of contracts for JPSS-1, Exelis got $91.1 million for the Cross-track Infrared Sounder and Northrop Grumman got $34.7 million for the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder. 

If NOAA does decide to order a gap-filler — and it has not, yet — the extra work needed to get that satellite up and running would push the launch of JPSS-1 beyond 2017, Webster said. However, the gap-filler would keep the afternoon polar orbit partially covered even if JPSS-1 was destroyed at launch, or if NPP does not last through 2016 as expected.

Because the gap-filler would use instruments now slotted for JPSS-1, Exelis would have to speed up work on the Cross-track Infrared Sounder it is now building for JPSS-2 under an undefinitized letter contract and deliver the sensor in 2017. That is about two years earlier than currently planned, Webster said. JPSS-2, the second of four planned JPSS satellites, is slated to launch by 2022. 

The Cross-track Infrared Sounder weighs about 85 kilograms and uses an average of 117 watts of power. Northrop’s Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder weighs about 75 kilograms and uses an average of about 130 watts.

Webster said Exelis has spoken to small satellite bus manufacturers Orbital Sciences Corp., Northrop Grumman and ATK Aerospace, and that any of those companies could supply a bus capable of hosting the proposed gap-filler instruments. 

Whether NOAA is able to heed the Young team’s recommendation to launch a gap-filler is not entirely within the agency’s control. The plan Webster outlined assumes NOAA would also follow the panel’s recommendation to bulk order as many as three copies of the sounders Exelis and Northrop are working on. NOAA’s ability to do that hinges on the size of the appropriation the agency receives from Congress, which returns to Washington Jan. 6 to finish work on 2014 budgets.

The stopgap spending bill that funds the government through Jan. 15 allows NOAA to shift funds around within its agency-wide $1.8 billion Procurement, Acquisition and Construction account “to maintain the planned launch schedules for the Joint Polar Satellite System and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite system.” However, it is not certain that this leeway, even if preserved in follow-on spending legislation, would cover the cost of a gap-filler.

Last April, when the White House laid out its 2014 budget request, NOAA highlighted changes to the JPSS program that dropped its price tag to roughly $11.3 billion through 2028. Just a year before, in 2012, NOAA pegged the JPSS lifecycle cost at about $12.9 billion.

The 2012 estimate included a so-called Polar Free Flyer satellite that NOAA has since placed under new management outside the JPSS program. The Polar Free Flyer — a spacecraft that Mary Kicza, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, has said could be launched by Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket — would have carried instruments ordered for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Satellite System program, whose cancellation back in 2010 spawned JPSS. Not all of those instruments were weather-related.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...