SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. Air Force officials told a Senate panel that companies should continue to receive funding to develop sensors and design the spacecraft for the canceled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) until the Defense Department completes a thorough review of requirements for its future weather satellites.

Gary Payton, Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, said funding set aside in the 2010 and 2011 budgets should continue to be spent on the tri-agency program, which was halted by a White House order in February. “We need to continue that work for NASA’s utility and the Air Force’s utility,” Payton said March 10 during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. “The sensors that the Air Force will need are probably very similar to the sensors under construction right now.”

In addition, the Air Force, in coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Security Council, has identified the immediate steps that should be taken as the military defines its own weather satellite mission. Those near-term steps include harvesting the sensor technologies and intellectual property related to NPOESS and working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to re-evaluate military requirements. “The Air Force will then include those requirements in the design of a successor spacecraft,” Payton said.


MUOS Delay

During the Senate hearing, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, also informed the panel of another delay in the Navy’s next-generation Mobile User Objective System (MUOS). “Last year you were informed that MUOS was going to be delayed by about 11 months,” Dorsett said. Our estimate at this point is that the first satellite is expected to be launched in September of 2011 with an on-orbit capability of December 2011. That’s about a 10-month delay from what you were briefed previously.”

As a result of that delay, Navy officials are evaluating ways to protect against any gap in the service’s narrowband ultra-high frequency (UHF) satellite capability, including the possibility of flying a hosted UHF payload on a commercial satellite, said Gary Federici, Navy deputy assistant secretary for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and space. “We will want to get something soon.”

Currently, the Navy relies on an aging fleet of UHF satellites. Service officials are concerned that those spacecraft will fail or degrade before the MUOS fleet takes over. The Navy considered flying a UHF payload aboard a commercial satellite, but scrapped that plan because of concerns that it could not be done quickly enough. This year, the Navy also revealed plans to rely on a new service developed by Iridium Communications LLC of Bethesda, Md., as a stop-gap measure.

Dorsett said the Navy now needs a commercially hosted payload. “It comes down to an issue of risk and how much capability you are going to be able to provide to warfighters,” Dorsett said. “We provide this UHF capability across the Defense Department. … To date, we are OK. But if there were to be any other delays in the MUOS constellation, we would be placing the joint force at a level of risk that would not be appropriate.”


Constellation Impact

During the Senate hearing, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) asked Air Force officials how President Barack Obama’s proposed cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program would affect the service and the price of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). When Payton and Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the Air Force had not completed its evaluation of the impact on costs, Vitter pressed them for an explanation.

 “As I understand it, NASA buys the majority of solid rocket motors,” Vitter said. “If that majority support from NASA goes away and you still need to depend on that industrial base, I assume your costs go way up. Am I missing something?”

In fact, Vitter said, he had heard that the cost of solid-rocket boosters could go up 100 percent.

“The information we have seen is that the propulsion systems for our EELVs might double in price,” Payton said. “Not the whole launch vehicle, but the solid and liquid propellant rocket engines.”

In an effort to mitigate any cost increases, the Air Force is evaluating alternative ways to buy EELVs and conducting a study to determine what the launch vehicles should cost, Payton said.

Kehler added that the plans for NASA included in Obama’s 2011 budget offer opportunities for the military as well as challenges. “The investment planned in terms of research and development for a new liquid engine is a good opportunity,” Kehler said. “We would like to collaborate with them.”

In addition, the Air Force welcomes NASA’s plans to support commercial launch providers. The Air Force’s goal of ensuring access to space would be strengthened by viable commercial launch vendors, Kehler said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...