WASHINGTON — The launch of the first next-generation polar orbiting weather satellite has slipped by two months because of issues with the spacecraft and its ground systems, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed Aug. 5.
NOAA spokesman John Leslie said the launch of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) 1 spacecraft, which had been scheduled for January 2017, is now expected to take place in March.
“Based on recent tests of the flight and ground systems and an assessment of the remaining work to bring the system to flight readiness, NOAA has determined it cannot meet the Jan. 20, 2017 launch date for JPSS-1 with reasonable confidence,” Leslie said in a statement provided to SpaceNews. He did not elaborate on the issues causing the delay, although sources say a problem with one of the spacecraft’s instruments may be part of the reason for the delay.
Leslie said that NOAA, working with NASA, who is responsible for the JPSS-1 launch, has set a new “launch planning date” for the mission of March 2017. The spacecraft will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
“NOAA is committed to the successful launch and operation of the mission, which is critical to NOAA’s commitment of providing the best, most reliable, long-term weather and climate prediction,” Leslie said.
Jackie Berger, a spokeswoman for Ball Aerospace, the JPSS-1 prime contractor, said Aug. 5 the company was “supporting the NASA/NOAA schedule” but referred questions about the details of the delay to NOAA. “We continue to work closely with NASA, NOAA and JPSS contractor team in order to achieve the March 2017 launch date,” she said.
News of the slip comes less than a month after a House Science Committee hearing where David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said he “still remained concerned” about the launch date for JPSS-1 even though the project, at the time, appeared to be on track.
The project, Powner said at the July 7 hearing, had missed interim milestones involving the spacecraft itself, one of its instruments and the ground systems. Two key upcoming milestones, he said, were the delivery of the ground system scheduled for August and a thermal vacuum test of the spacecraft that was scheduled to begin in late July. Berger said Aug. 5 that the thermal vacuum test is current scheduled to start in mid-August.
Any delay in the launch of JPSS-1 raises concerns about a data gap. The Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder instrument on the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft is in danger of failing, and the loss of data should it fail before JPSS-1, carrying a similar instrument, enters service could adversely affect the accuracy of weather forecasts.
The delay may trigger additional congressional scrutiny of the program, as well as increased emphasis on the use of commercial data purchases to mitigate any data gaps. “Time and again we have seen that our government satellite systems are beset with cost overruns, mismanagement and a narrow mindset,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, said in an Aug. 5 statement to SpaceNews. “I call on NOAA to implement all available solutions to avoid a gap in weather data.”