GAO Details Issues with ICESat-2 Sensor

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ICESat-2's Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System's "performance began to degrade in January 2013, one month after its plan was baselined at confirmation,” the GAO wrote in its annual assessment of large-scale NASA projects. Credit: NASA
ICESat-2’s Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System’s “performance began to degrade in January 2013, one month after its plan was baselined at confirmation,” the GAO wrote in its annual assessment of large-scale NASA projects. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The science instrument for a troubled NASA ice-monitoring satellite will be delivered at least nine months late and continues to face development challenges, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The April 15 report comes as NASA prepares new cost and schedule estimates for the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat)-2, a high-priority program whose difficulties surfaced in October. The new estimates are expected in May, but NASA recently indicated that it expects the launch to slip from 2016 to at least 2018.

NASA in December 2012 said the mission, identified as a top priority in a 10-year roadmap released in 2007 by the Earth science community, would cost $559 million and launch in 2016. The mission’s main instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, was designed and developed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., with help from contractor Fibertek Inc. of Herndon, Va.

“The instrument’s performance began to degrade in January 2013, one month after its plan was baselined at confirmation,” the GAO wrote in its annual assessment of large-scale NASA projects. Citing ICESat-2 project officials, the GAO said the photon-counting laser’s 20 subsystems were well understood, but that the instrument team had difficulty putting them all together.

As required by law for projects that overrun their budgets by at least 15 percent, NASA notified Congress about problems with ICESat-2 in January.

That preliminary breach report has not been released to the public, but the GAO said “recent estimates indicate that [the laser] has used all of its schedule reserve and is now planned for delivery in March 2016 — nine months later than originally needed for integration onto the spacecraft.”

The fix Fibertek and NASA are working on will be part of the ICESat-2 replan the mission team will submit to the agency’s Program Management Council in May, according to slides presented April 9 to the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee by Peg Luce, the agency’s deputy director for Earth Science.

According to Luce, the mission will launch no earlier than 2018.

NASA spokesman Stephen Cole, reached by email April 15, declined to comment further on the timing the replan.

Fibertek has two contracts related to the ICESat-2 laser: a $35 million engineering services agreement awarded in 2009, and a $26 million cost-plus deal awarded in 2011 to provide four spaceflight lasers and a test laser.

Those contracts keep about 33 full-time employees at work on ICESat-2’s main instrument, Mark Storm, Fibertek’s space systems manager, said in an April 15 phone interview.

“The work at Fibertek is proceeding smoothly,” Storm said. “We’re scheduled to deliver all of our stuff. It works, we’re happy with it all.”

Storm said there have been “bumps in the road,” but declined to elaborate, deferring to NASA.

The GAO said ICESat project officials are “currently monitoring multiple risks related to the … instrument including delivery delays of some of [its] 20 subsystems and development problems.

“[A]ccording to project officials, the instrument’s most challenging subsystem is the optics subsystem, due to its very strict requirements,” the report said. “The project recently reported identifying several areas where requirements could be relaxed, which benefited multiple subsystems.”

NASA has shaken up its management team for the sensor, Luce said April 9. The new instrument project manager is Cathy Richardson, who managed the Thermal Infrared Sensor that was launched to space in 2013 aboard the Landsat-8 land mapping satellite.

Luce did not say how much ICESat-2’s price tag is expected to rise, but another NASA official said it would be by “a lot.”

“There’s going to be a lot of noise about that,” Craig Tupper, director of resource management in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during the advisory council meeting.

According to Luce’s slides from the meeting, NASA will tap into the Earth Science Division’s Other Missions and Data Analysis budget to fund the ICESat-2 replan. The account funds the division’s 17 operating observatories, data analysis and development of some other missions. NASA requested about $520 million for this account as part of a 2015 budget request that was released in March and did not account for the cost of an ICESat-2 replan.

Word of trouble with ICESat-2’s primary instrument first surfaced publicly in October. At that time, Michael Freilich, NASA’s Earth Science Division director, said the launch likely would slip from late 2016 to the middle of 2017.

When the first ICESat’s seven-year mission ended in 2010, NASA thought it could build and launch ICESat-2 as soon as 2015.

ICESat-2’s three-year primary mission is designed to measure changes in the elevation of global ice sheets, sea-ice and the height of vegetation canopies from a 495-kilometer polar orbit. Orbital Sciences Corp. is building the ICESat-2 satellite bus at its facility in Gilbert, Ariz., under a contract that was worth $135 million when it was awarded in 2011 and is now valued at just more than $145 million, according to the GAO report.

Orbital also is responsible for integrating the laser altimeter, and for on-orbit checkout and operation of ICESat-2, which will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket.