Editorial | Dim Forecast

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NASA officials are understandably disappointed at the lost opportunity to catch an attractively priced ride to orbit for a sea-ice monitoring satellite aboard a rocket whose primary payload is a U.S. Air Force weather satellite. But the reason behind the tentative arrangement’s collapse arguably has more significance for the U.S. Defense Department’s future weather forecasting capabilities.

NASA had hoped to launch its second Ice, Clouds and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat 2, as a co-passenger with the last Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in 2016. In exchange for the ride, NASA was to pay about $50 million to help Atlas 5 maker United Launch Alliance complete development of a dual payload adapter that could prove extremely useful to U.S. civil, military and even commercial satellite operators given the high cost of launches these days.

The opportunity evaporated in March when the Air Force opted to defer the launch of DMSP F20, one of only two weather satellites remaining in its inventory, until 2020. NASA does not want to wait until then to launch ICESat 2, a key element of the agency’s climate change research program.

The Air Force has traditionally operated two DMSP satellites in tandem orbits — the so-called early morning and late-morning orbits — to maximize forecast accuracy. Up until about a year ago, plans called for continuing that scheme with DMSP F19 and F20, which were to launch in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Those satellites, built in the 1990s, are the last of the DMSP series, whose legacy dates back to the 1960s.

According to a U.S. government source, a planned replacement known as the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) was to carry next-generation sensors able to provide similar forecasting accuracy using only the early morning orbit, meaning the Air Force would not have to operate two satellites at once. Congress last year directed the service to cancel the DWSS program, however, leaving the Pentagon dependent on the antiquated DMSP craft for the foreseeable future.

With no clear plan or timetable for a follow-on system, the Air Force opted to accept reduced forecasting capability by flying just a single DMSP satellite in the early morning orbit. This allowed the service to stretch out the program by deferring the launch of DMSP F20 until 2020, the tradeoff being that lower-accuracy forecasts will be a fact of life at least until the middle of next decade — assuming neither spacecraft fails or is lost in a launch mishap.

This was not an unreasonable decision under the circumstances. But the hedging strategy, in addition to leaving the Defense Department with less-accurate and less-robust weather prediction, confirms the low priority assigned to developing and deploying a modern weather satellite system. If any more evidence of this was needed, it can be found in Air Force Space Command’s newly released list of Space and Cyberspace Priorities. Terrestrial Environmental Monitoring, a broad category that includes weather, ranks No. 13 out of 15 priorities identified in the space arena.

While the Pentagon can supplement its weather coverage with civilian satellites, it has unique requirements for which there are no alternative data sources.

Although Congress, in canceling DWSS, provided $125 million — that’s real money, folks — for work on a follow-on system this year, the Air Force requested a paltry $2 million for the effort in 2013. The service is moving ahead with relatively low-level studies of next-generation sensors and alternative system architectures, but it clearly isn’t serious about getting a full-scale development program under way anytime soon.

NASA, meanwhile, is back to square one in its search for an ICESat 2 launch. The agency recently awarded launch contracts for four similarly sized Earth science satellites using three of the last five Delta 2 rockets in United Launch Alliance’s inventory and a Falcon 9 built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. The good news is that the agency appears to have options for ICESat 2. The bad news is that whichever one it chooses is going to cost considerably more than $50 million.

This is by no means the Air Force’s fault, of course — the arrangement to launch ICESat 2 with DMSP was tentative, and in any case the service’s own mission requirements take priority. It does appear, however, that the Air Force and Defense Department are not nearly as worried as they should be about weather forecasts that will be needed to support far-flung military operations in the future.