The projected cost of the U.S. government’s next generation of geostationary orbiting weather satellites likely will rise again, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) official.

Mary Ellen Kicza, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, told Congress Oct. 23 that the cost of the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series of satellites

previously was estimated at $6.9 billion, but an ongoing analysis indicates that the cost likely will be somewhere between $7 billion to $8 billion.

Kicza told the House Science and Technology energy and the environment subcommittee that a more definitive number will be available when NOAA submits its 2009 budget request to Congress in February.

David Powner, director of information technology issues at the Government Accountability Office, said in a report released at the hearing that an independent review team has found that the cost of the GOES-R satellites could be as high as $9.3 billion.

noted during the hearing that independent reviews often give

more weight to historical trends on satellite programs than do estimates generated by program offices, and as a result, the independent reviews tend to generate higher numbers. Those higher cost estimates generally are met or exceeded, he said.

However, Kicza said the review team has since revised its estimate based on updated programmatic information, and now is projecting a cost much closer to her $7 billion to $8 billion figure.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas), chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee, said he is concerned about the increased cost estimates, even if the numbers are close to Kicza’s figures.

A potential $1 billion growth in cost over the estimate provided to the committee a year ago by NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher “is not a good trend,” Lampson said.

GOES-R is expected to launch in 2014. While the Government Accountability Office report noted that the independent review team found that date could slip into 2017, Kicza said the team

now is projecting a delay of only a year or less.

The GOES satellites provide data on climate, atmospheric and oceanic conditions over the United States and Hawaii. NOAA currently operates two satellites, positioned over the East and West Coasts.

told the Science Committee in September 2006 that the projected cost of the GOES-R satellites had risen from $6.2 billion to more than $11 billion. NOAA subsequently restructured the program, reducing its planned purchase of satellites from four to two, and eliminated the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite from the planned instruments on the satellites.

In the hearing charter posted on the Science and Technology committee’s

Web site, the committee noted that the current generation of GOES satellites – a series called GOES-N – was expected to provide a major increase in capability over its predecessor, but ended up being “quite similar.”

During the Oct. 23 hearing, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) asked Kicza whether NOAA could save money by buying more of the current generation of GOES satellites. Kicza said

NOAA had studied this possibility,

but that it did not make financial sense for several reasons. The GOES-N satellites were designed with a mission lifetime that would require three of those satellites to provide the sustained service of two GOES-R satellites, she said.

NOAA had an option for a fourth satellite under the GOES-N contract, but elected not to exercise it because it was able to use a more powerful launch vehicle that extended

the lifetime of the first three satellites, Kicza said. That launch option no longer exists, she said.

A government source familiar with the program said the

Boeing Co., which built the GOES-N series and also

handled its launch aboard a

Delta 4 rocket under a fixed-price contract, would have lost money if it had built and launched the fourth satellite.

To address the issue, Boeing made an arrangement with NOAA where it improved the performance of the Delta 4 rocket that launched GOES-N and will launch the GOES-O and GOESP satellites, to deliver them to a more precise orbit so that the satellites could conserve onboard fuel for station-keeping, thus prolonging their lifetime to the point where a fourth satellite would not be needed, the source said.

Additionally, the cost of beginning a new procurement for satellites based on the GOES-N design, coupled with the money already invested in GOES-R development, suggest that the agency would not save money by changing course at this point, Kicza said. The government source noted that many of the parts used by GOES-N series are no longer available, and would be costly to replace.

Meanwhile, NOAA’s decision earlier this year to separate the contracts for the GOES-R spacecraft and ground system has likely resulted in a short delay in the award of those contracts, Kicza said. The awards will now likely take place in late 2008, she said.

The previous plan had been to award both aspects of the work under a single contract in early summer 2008.