House Panel Denies Funding for Pair of NOAA Satellite Projects

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Appropriations Committee on July 13 approved a 2012 spending bill that would deny funding for a pair of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite programs, one to provide advance warning of solar storms, the other a collaborative project with Taiwan.

The House version of the 2012 commerce, justice, science and related agencies appropriations bill also would trim $50 million from NOAA’s $617.4 million request to develop a new generation of geostationary orbiting weather satellites, according to the report accompanying the bill. It appears the savings would be applied to help kick-start NOAA’s polar-orbiting weather satellite program, which was delayed by the protracted 2011 budget process.

The 2012 budget request NOAA sent to Congress in February asked for $47.3 million for the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and $11.3 million for the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology Ionosphere and Climate-2 (COSMIC-2). The House bill would not provide funding for either project.

DSCOVR would utilize hardware left over from a planned NASA Earth observation mission dubbed Triana that was canceled several years ago; space weather forecasters say the satellite is sorely needed to replace an important sun-watching spacecraft that has far exceeded its design life. COSMIC-2 is a multisatellite radio occultation experiment being conducted jointly with Taiwan.

“While the Committee supports NOAA’s efforts to establish a radio occultation satellite constellation in partnership with Taiwan, the recommendation does not include any funding for the COSMIC-2 program given funding constraints and the need to fund other higher priority NOAA satellite programs,” the report that accompanied the House bill said.

The higher-priority satellite program is the Joint Polar Satellite System created last year after the White House dismantled a joint military-civilian weather satellite program. NOAA had sought $1 billion for the program in 2011 but Congress provided less than half of that amount. The House bill would provide $901.3 million for the Joint Polar Satellite System in 2012, which is $429.4 million more than appropriated for the program in 2011 but $168.6 million less than the request.

The 2012 funding bill would provide $567.4 million for NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series, $94.9 million less than provided for this year. It would also provide $20 million for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite that is being co-developed with Eumetsat, Europe’s meteorological satellite organization.

In its 2011 budget request, NOAA sought $9.5 million to ready the long-shelved DSCOVR spacecraft for launch and $3.7 million to initiate development of COSMIC-2. Congress was unable to pass any of the 12 traditional federal spending bills for 2011 and instead passed an all-in-one spending bill that held most federal spending to 2010 levels. Funding was generally not provided for so-called new start programs such as DSCOVR and COSMIC-2.

DSCOVR was originally outfitted with two climate sensors — a camera and a reflected solar radiance sensor — that would continuously monitor the Earth from the first Lagrange point some 1.6 million kilometers from Earth. The spacecraft was almost ready for launch in 2001 when the mission was abruptly canceled and put into storage at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

NOAA in 2008 funded a study to determine whether the spacecraft could take over for NASA’s aging Advanced Composition Explorer, said Robert Smith, NASA’s DSCOVR project manager. The Advanced Composition Explorer since 1997 has provided advance warning of coronal mass ejections and other solar events that have the potential to harm satellites and disrupt radio frequency communications. The satellite was designed to operate for only five years.

If funds to refurbish DSCOVR are provided, the plan is to launch the satellite in January 2014, Smith said in a July 7 interview. The total cost to refurbish the satellite and prepare it for launch is between $63 million and $65 million, NOAA spokesman John Leslie said in a July 7 email.

The Air Force, which is keenly interested in the space weather data DSCOVR would provide, agreed to pay for the satellite’s launch vehicle. The service requested $135 million for this purpose in 2012, but a defense spending bill passed July 8 by the House Appropriations Committee did not include this funding. The Air Force planned to allow new entrants such as Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to compete for the launch, government and industry sources said.

The Senate, meanwhile, has yet to weigh in on NOAA’s 2012 budget.