WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has trimmed the number of next-generation geostationary-orbiting weather satellites it intends to order next year and is considering a stand-alone procurement for the system’s ground segment, according to an agency official.

Splitting the space- and ground-segment contracts for the Geostationary-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) system would mark a departure from previous plans and necessitate a reshuffling of the teams bidding on the project, industry sources said. The three companies expected to bid on the GOES-R prime contract have ground-segment suppliers on their teams.

The decision to order just two GOES-R satellites, meanwhile, is part of a restructuring that has brought the program’s estimated cost down to about $7 billion, according to Charles Baker, chief financial officer for NOAA’s satellite division. NOAA previously envisioned buying anywhere from three to eight GOES-R satellites, depending on various deployment scenarios, he said.

NOAA revamped GOES-R following revelations late last year that the program’s projected cost had risen from roughly $6 billion to more than $11 billion. Among the cost-cutting changes was the elimination of the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite, a sensor package that was to monitor atmospheric temperature and humidity as well as ocean color. That move shaved approximately $2 billion from GOES-R’s price tag, Baker said in a telephone interview March 8. He said the instrument would have been “the most complex satellite sensor ever undertaken by NOAA.”

The current GOES satellites use instruments called sounders to take vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature and moisture. NOAA is evaluating how to take these measurements using GOES-R minus the Hyperspectral Environmental Suite, Baker said. The options include procuring an instrument equal in capability to current GOES sounders or developing software that can derive the measurements from data gathered by GOES-R’s other main sensor, the advanced baseline imager, Baker said. That sensor is being built by ITT Space Systems of Rochester, N.Y.

NOAA will choose between the options shortly, Baker said. He added that ocean-color measurements will not likely be added back to the GOES-R mission.

NOAA typically operates two GOES satellites, one each overlooking the East and West coasts of the U.S. mainland, for tracking severe storms and other weather conditions. The agency maintains a third satellite as an on-orbit spare.

Baker declined to say how much money NOAA expects to save by truncating the GOES-R satellite procurement. The wide range of possible satellite numbers under the previous plan had to do with the various deployment schemes that were under consideration: some scenarios involved placing two smaller satellites rather than one large one in each of the two GOES orbital slots, for example.

In addition to scaling back the program, NOAA also has stretched it out, delaying the prime contract award date by one year, to 2008, and the first launch by two years, to 2014. Baker said that decision, announced when NOAA unveiled its 2008 budget request, was based on revised life-expectancy projections for the current GOES satellites and the desire to reduce development risks on the GOES-R program.

Teams led by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, and Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., are designing competing GOES-R systems under risk-reduction contracts awarded in late 2005. Those contracts are slated to wrap up April 21, Baker said. The request for proposals for the prime contract is expected in September he said, adding that NOAA does not intend at this point to extend the design studies.

NOAA has not made a decision on whether to buy any additional GOES-R-series satellites after the first two or move on to a different platform, Baker said.

Meanwhile, Baker said, a decision will be made soon on whether to procure the GOES-R space and ground segments separately. Conducting separate procurements would not affect the new $7 billion cost estimate for the entire program, he said.

John Leslie, a spokesman for NOAA’s satellite division, said via e-mail that while the GOES-R hardware and software costs would not change, “the program management costs might differ under some of the scenarios, as would the distribution of those program management costs between the government and industry.”

Leslie declined to comment on the arguments in favor of separating the ground- and space-segment procurements.

The U.S. Air Force has taken the split procurement approach in recent years on a number of satellite programs, including the Transformational Satellite Communications system and GPS 3 navigation system. Suppliers of ground-based hardware and software have extolled the virtues of the practice, saying it gives the customer the flexibility to pick the best contractor solutions. Some of the large satellite prime contractors have been less enthusiastic, saying that combining the two elements under a single contract is better because it simplifies the government’s oversight job.

An industry source said the impact on the GOES-R teaming arrangements that would occur with a shift to a dual-track procurement depends on the approach. If the ground-segment contract includes spacecraft-control and instrument-calibration systems, the disruption would be much greater than if it were limited to the hardware and software used to generate GOES-R data products, the source said.

Baker declined to discuss the specific approaches NOAA might take to contracting separately for the GOES-R ground system or how the procurement might be managed.