WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department is considering whether to ask Congress – again — for funding to launch a legacy weather satellite after lawmakers killed the program last year.
Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said in an interview with SpaceNews June 22 that the Pentagon has pushed back a deadline to begin dismantling Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 20 until Sept. 1. Previously, Air Force leaders said they needed to begin taking apart the satellite as early as June 1 in order to meet the program termination schedule. The additional three months would allow the Defense Department to weigh whether it wants to ask Congress to launch the satellite.
Bob Work, the deputy secretary of defense, delayed the disassembly of DMSP-20 earlier this year after consulting with various Defense Department leaders, Greaves said.
The Air Force built the last of the DMSP satellites in the 1990s and at one point planned to launch the satellite as soon as 2018, even as it considered whether the cost — including years of storage — was worth the additional capability. Lockheed Martin was the prime contractor on the program.
In recent years, the Air Force has wavered about the need to launch DMSP-20. But by the time the service came back to Congress in 2015 and asked to launch the satellite, lawmakers had given up on the program.
In the massive omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2016, lawmakers provided no funding for DMSP and the bill denied $120 million of funding to launch DMSP-20 around 2018. The combination effectively ended the program. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has said the Air Force spent $518 million on the satellite.
But in February, NOAA satellite operators unexpectedly lost the ability to command an orbiting DMSP satellite, known as DMSP-19, limiting the Air Force’s options for receiving key weather data. The setback also forced the Defense Department to reconsider their long-term weather satellite outlook, beginning with reassessing DMSP-20.
Currently, DMSP-20 is in “safe keeping” at Lockheed Martin’s satellite facility in Sunnyvale, California, where it receives minimal pre-launch preparation and requires less testing than traditional mission-ready storage, Greaves said.
“We know Congress has said very clearly to terminate the program,” Greaves said. But the three-month delay pushes back what’s been referred to as “a point of no return” while allowing the Air Force to continue to work toward the “non-hardware” termination of the program and still wrap up the program, if need be, by the end of the year.
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in a March 2016 memo that the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a Pentagon acquisition review board, backs the idea of launching DMSP-20.
“The JROC supports launch of the Defense Meteorological Space Program satellite (DMSP-20) in order to retain a DoD materiel capability … to support military operations in a critical region,” Selva said.
In addition, DMSP-20 could help provide cloud characterization and theater weather imagery, two of the Defense Department’s top needs from weather satellites, Greaves said.
A decision to deploy the weather satellite also could lead to another competitive launch opportunity for SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. DMSP-20 likely would be ready to launch in the time it takes for the Air Force to buy and build a rocket to lift the satellite, Greaves said.
But DMSP-20 is not the only way the Defense Department could meet some of its weather data needs at least on a short-term basis.
In May, the JROC said the Air Force should study the idea of using a government satellite to fulfill some of its highest priority weather data gaps. In addition, the Air Force is considering using its rapid-response space development shop, the Operationally Responsive Space Office, for another weather mission. Greaves said.
The ORS office already is working on a small weather satellite, known as Compact Ocean Wind Vector Radiometer, or COWVR, that could launch as early as next year, but that program will not provide the cloud characterization and theater weather imagery the Defense Department needs. Instead it will focus on proving technology for creating weather data on ocean surface winds and tropical cyclone intensity.
The Air Force expects to submit to the JROC later this fall a series of options on how to close the weather data gaps, including the possibility of new military satellites, such as one built in conjunction with ORS, relying on international partners or buying the data from a commercial company.
Lawmakers have criticized the Air Force for what they see as ignoring some of the weather satellite gaps for too long.
In the House’s annual defense authorization bill, which passed in May, lawmakers said they planned to fence half the funding for the Air Force’s next-generation weather satellite program until the service develops a plan to transition acquisition and funding authority for some space-weather missions to the National Reconnaissance Office. While the NRO builds and operates the country’s spy satellites and helped develop early weather satellites, some in industry question whether the NRO will ultimately end up with the additional responsibilities.