Omnibus Fully Funds Primary NOAA Satellites, Stiffs Free Flyer

by

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government’s primary civilian weather satellite programs are fully funded in an omnibus spending measure for 2014 that also requires the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to submit to lawmakers a plan in the coming weeks for ensuring long-term coverage.

However, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2014 (H.R. 3547), which passed the House Jan. 15 and the Senate Jan. 16, does not fund an adjunct satellite intended to host instruments that cannot fit on NOAA’s primary polar-orbiting platforms. U.S. President Barack Obama signed the legislation Jan. 17.

NOAA operates two primary satellite systems, a geostationary-orbiting system for continental coverage and a polar-orbiting system for global coverage. Budget difficulties and delays have led to concerns about gaps in coverage, primarily from polar orbit, as age pushes the existing systems into retirement.

The omnibus spending bill, which funds the entire federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2014, provides $955 million for the Geostationary-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R system under development by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and now slated to begin launching in 2016. That sum is level with NOAA’s request.

NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System program is allotted $824 million in the bill, also per the agency’s request. The first satellite in that system, being built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. and slated to launch in early 2017, is nearly identical to the Ball-built Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite launched in late 2011.

In a report accompanying the legislation, the House and Senate appropriations committees cited an independent assessment that said NOAA is making progress on the GOES-R and JPSS programs. But that assessment, along with others by the Commerce Department’s inspector general and Government Accountability Office, identified program risks including the possibility of a gap in JPSS coverage. 

“The Committees expect NOAA to present a strategy with the fiscal year 2015 budget that fully addresses both the short- and long-term challenges associated with the gap and fragility of the program,” the report accompanying the bill said. “Such a strategy shall examine the proposed polar free flyer mission, which the agreement does not fund due to fiscal constraints. NOAA is expected to focus on the weather mission and to better address the weather gap in its fiscal year 2015 budget.” 

The White House is expected to submit its 2015 budget request in late February.

The so-called Free Flyer-1 satellite is an adjunct mission intended to carry instruments that cannot be accommodated on the primary polar-orbit system, including a solar-irradiance sensor and a search and rescue payload. NOAA requested $62 million for the mission, with a launch tentatively scheduled for 2016.

The bill gives NOAA explicit permission to spend JPSS funds on procurement of additional instruments and spacecraft as necessary to ensure continuity of coverage from polar-orbit. NOAA, through its partner agency NASA, has begun procuring sensors for a JPSS-2 mission but has yet to select a manufacturer for the satellite platform.

Other highlights of the NOAA portion of the omnibus appropriations bill include:

  • The Deep Space Climate Observatory mission, originally conceived in the 1990s by then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore, would receive $24 million. The satellite is tentatively slated to launch in 2014 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket operated by Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
     
  • COSMIC-2, a joint mission with Taiwan to take atmospheric temperature and humidity measurements based on how these conditions distort GPS signals, gets $2 million. That mission, involving up to 12 small satellites, is partly funded by the U.S. Air Force
     
  • Jason-3, the latest in a series of ocean altimetry satellites built and operated jointly with France, gets $18.5 million. Jason-3 is slated to launch 2015 on a Falcon 9 rocket.

 

Follow Warren on Twitter: @Ferster_SN