Orbital ATK JPSS
Orbital ATK's version of the Joint Polar System Satellite spacecraft. Credit: Orbital ATK.

Updated April 10

WASHINGTON — Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is challenging NASA’s surprise decision to award a contract for up to three weather satellites to rival Orbital ATK, which hauled in the work thanks to what one Ball official characterized as a suspiciously lower bid.

Boulder, Colorado-based Ball is building the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellite, scheduled for launch in 2017, and built a similar satellite now in operation. As such it was considered the odds-on favorite to win the follow-on JPSS-2 contract, which includes one firm satellite and options to build two more.

But while NASA judged Ball’s proposal to be superior from both a technical and risk standpoint, the incumbent lost out because its price was 15 percent higher than the $470 million Orbital ATK offered for all three satellites, Debra Facktor Lepore, Ball vice president and general manager of strategic operations, said in an April 7 phone interview.

Orbital ATK’s contract, announced March 24, includes a firm $253 million order for JPSS-2, with a $130 million option for JPSS-3 and an $87 million option for JPSS-4.

Ball proposed building JPSS-2 for $25 million less than Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK, but the latter’s bargain-bin JPSS-4 option, which would extend the contract through 2028, brought its three-satellite total lower than Ball’s, Lepore said.

Orbital ATK’s “price advantage would only be realized if NASA exercises that distant option [for JPSS-4], and that’s in 2028,” Lepore said. “To save a little bit out in 2028, is that really going to materialize? And what are all the additional costs up front?”

Lepore spoke to SpaceNews five days after NASA debriefied Ball on its decision to go with Orbital ATK for the follow-on JPSS satellites, which will provide global weather coverage for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NASA manages procurement and launch of NOAA satellites. JPSS-2 is slated for launch in 2021, while JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 are set to follow in 2024 and 2026, respectively.

The Ball- and Orbital ATK-built JPSS satellites will carry a similar set of instruments and work with a ground segment developed by Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems.

The day Ball filed its protest, NASA ordered Orbital ATK to halt work on the JPSS-2 contract — standard practice during contract award disputes, NASA spokeswoman Cynthia O’Carroll wrote in an April 8 email.

NASA has not yet released the source selection document for the latest JPSS competition, which was run by the Rapid Spacecraft Development Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland. The document, which explains NASA’s rationale for choosing Orbital ATK over Ball, “is not releasable at this time due to the challenge received to the award,” O’Carroll wrote in her email.

Orbital ATK spokeswoman Vicki Cox declined to comment for this story. Assuming the company’s award survives Ball’s protest, the next batch of JPSS satellites will be built at Orbital ATK’s Gilbert, Arizona, facility based on the company’s LEOStar-3 spacecraft bus.


Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.