A U.S.-European ocean-topography satellite intended to guarantee data-collection continuity for meteorological and other agencies has likely fallen too far behind schedule to fulfill that objective , according to U.S. and European officials involved with the program.
Satellite delays are nothing new, but officials say that in this case it will be particularly costly.
The Jason-2 satellite, which NASA calls the Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM), is billed as a showcase example of space agencies developing a technology, winning widespread user interest and then handing off the proven product to operational agencies.
It is a model that has worked for telecommunications and weather satellites . Ocean topography is supposed to be the next research-to-users success story.
For Jason-2/OSTM, the research agencies are NASA and the French space agency, CNES. They partnered in the early 1990s to develop the Topex-Poseidon ocean-monitoring mission, which played a role in identifying the El Nino phenomenon.
Launched in 1992 on a three- to five-year mission, Topex-Poseidon still operates today, although it is being retired this year. It was such a hit with meteorological and military authorities on both sides of the Atlantic that CNES and NASA agreed to follow up with a similar satellite, Jason-1, which was launched in December 2001.
With Jason-1, it became clear to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Europe’s meteorological satellite agency, Eumetsat, that taking precise measurements of the ocean surface and circulation was something they wanted to adopt as part of their mandate.
But for the service to be of value to operational agencies, continuity of data must be guaranteed.
After a long debate, NOAA and Eumetsat agreed to sponsor a Jason-2 mission if NASA and CNES would pitch in. Total costs of the mission are estimated at between $250 million and $300 million.
NASA and CNES agreed, despite the fact that these agencies’ roles do not generally include launching carbon copies of previous satellites.
“Otherwise you start losing your edge,” said Mary Cleave, NASA director for Earth-Sun systems. She said funding three satellites for the same mission is already unusual for NASA.
CNES officials agreed. “A research agency such as ours is more comfortable with one-off satellites,” said Daniel Vidal-Madjar, head of Earth observation at CNES.
It was not until 2004 that the four partners finalized their agreement. CNES signed a contract for Jason-2’s production with Alcatel Space of Paris, the same company that built Jason-1, in May 2004.
For a mission designed to provide continuity, it was already a late start. But Jason-1 was healthy and in any event getting four agencies on two continents to act in concert takes time. Alcatel said it could finish the satellite in time for an April 2008 launch.
But Alcatel did not immediately start work on Jason-2. The company was waiting for NASA to determine whether a promising experimental instrument, called the Wide Swath Ocean Altimeter (WSOA), would be added to the mission . That would change the satellite’s design.
WSOA had won rave reviews from scientists, but it was expensive. Steven P. Neeck of NASA’s science mission directorate said the instrument would cost around $70 million.
When added to NASA’s other costs for Jason-2/OSTM, including $72 million for a proposed Delta 2 launch, WSOA busted the mission’s allocated budget.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program proposed coming to the rescue by offering a modified Peacekeeper missile as the satellite’s launcher. The Department of Defense expressed interest in the WSOA instrument.
But for NASA, the Peacekeeper-based launcher, while much less expensive than a Delta 2 rocket, was out of the question. “The vehicle is not certified,” said Cleave. “We couldn’t take the risk on this program.”
Eumetsat then proposed a Russian rocket inexpensive enough that the WSOA instrument might be preserved as part of the Jason-2/OSTM mission . Despite the proposal’s low cost, however, NASA said it could not accept the Russian launcher.
“Accepting the Russian rocket would have meant reopening the four-party memorandum of understanding over Jason-2, and perhaps even facing opposition in Congress,” said Vidal-Madjar. “The idea was viewed as unacceptable for the U.S.”
Cleave has a slightly different recollection. “The offer came late in the flow of the program,” Cleave said. “And it wasn’t a clear, clean offer. It came with restraints that we could not accept.” She declined to detail the constraints.
For Alcatel, already under contract and being paid by CNES, the debate over WSOA and the launcher meant that little if any work could proceed on the satellite.
“There were three or four months in late 2004 when Alcatel was being paid by us but was not doing any work,” Vidal-Madjar said. “Work did not start in earnest until early this year.”
Alcatel Space spokesman Laurent Zimmermann confirmed that this was the case.
The debate within NASA over WSOA ended March 1 with a decision to drop the instrument from Jason-2/OSTM. Cleave said it could not be fitted into the budget, but added that Defense Department and other U.S. government requirements make it all but certain that WSOA will fly one day.
Alcatel Space and CNES, in their public statements about the mission, are sticking with the April 2008 launch date. But officials say that date is now unrealistic.
Future users of the ocean-topography data must weigh the risks that there will be a significant gap between Jason-1 and Jason-2/OSTM.
“We have stated to our users that there is a risk there will be no overlap,” said Mikael Rattenborg, director of operations at Eumetsat. “The risk has always been there, of course.”
Cleave said the Jason-2/OSTM experience has been no more, and no less, complicated than other international missions. “It’s never very pretty,” she said, adding that there is reason for optimism that Jason-1 will last longer than anyone expected.
“Once you get beyond the infant-mortality period for these satellites you often have the problem of how to fund operations for years beyond what was planned,” Cleave said. “For now, the satellite is doing very well.”
Brian Berger contributed to this story from Washington.