WASHINGTON — The next-generation U.S. civil polar-orbiting weather satellite program has found more stable footing following passage of a bill that provides nearly $1 billion for the long-delayed effort next year, but concerns about a gap in coverage remain.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., which is building the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft, now has about 40 people working on the project, up from 12 during much of 2011, said Scott Asbury, JPSS program manager at Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace. Plans call for staffing up to about 130 by June, when the company expects to begin ordering components for the JPSS-1 satellite, now slated to launch in late 2016.

“We’re optimistic that, from talking to [NASA] earlier this week, they will be able to provide the funding for us in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to solidify our schedule,” Asbury said in a Dec. 1 phone interview. NASA  is procuring JPSS using money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will operate the system.

NOAA will receive $924 million for JPSS in 2012 under spending legislation enacted Nov. 18. While that figure is about $100 million less than NOAA requested, it is far more than the $472 million the program got for 2011 under a continuing resolution that kept all U.S. federal activities funded at 2010 levels.

“The [2011] budget situation pretty much put us in a holding pattern,” Asbury said.

Asbury said Ball’s share of the JPSS funding for 2012 will be “a little more money than we asked for — something on the order of $80 million, instead of $70 million.”

The JPSS program was hatched in 2010 when the White House dismantled the over-budget and behind-schedule joint civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The White House directed the Pentagon to pursue its own system separately.

NASA recently launched the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), a Ball-built satellite originally conceived as a test bed for the canceled civil-military system. NPP is being pressed into operational duty and is counted on to last at least until late 2016.

Because JPSS-1, essentially a copy of NPP, will not launch until about that time and will require months of on-orbit testing, there could be a gap of 14 to 20 months in civilian weather coverage from polar orbit, said Mary Kicza, the director of NOAA’s satellite division.

“It has been a concern because NPP is designed for a five-year lifetime,” Kicza said in a Dec. 1 interview. “With … the planned launch of JPSS, and the time it takes to characterize and calibrate and validate instruments, we are concerned about a gap in our ability to sustain coverage.”

Ball was awarded a $248 million fixed-price contract in September 2010 for JPSS-1, with an expected 2014 launch date. Ball has a separate contract, worth $82.4 million at the time of award, to build a clone of the Ozone Mapping and Profile Suite instrument it built for NPP.

JPSS-1 will carry the same five instruments as NPP.

NOAA officials are still mulling the requirements for the follow-on JPSS spacecraft. JPSS-2, however, will be awarded through an open competition, rather than sole-sourced to Ball, a NOAA official said.

“In general, we expect [JPSS-2] to be a seven-year-lifetime spacecraft with a similar instrument complement” to JPSS-1, said Harry Cikanek, NOAA’s JPSS program manager.

The JPSS program also requires NOAA to fly instruments that are not aboard either NPP or JPSS-1, Cikanek told Space News.

One of these is a solar irradiance monitor being built by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics under a 2009 contract then valued at $42 million. The sensor cannot fit on either NPP or JPSS-1, so it will have to find another ride to space, said Thomas Sparne, the instrument’s project manager at the University of Colorado.

Ground systems for JPSS-1 and follow-on spacecraft are provided by Garland, Texas-based Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems. Raytheon was awarded the $1.4 billion JPSS Common Ground System contract in 2010.

Development is now at its peak, and Raytheon has about 500 people working on project, said Bill Sullivan, Raytheon’s Aurora, Colo.-based program director for the JPSS Common Ground System.

Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems stands to receive about one-fifth of the $924 million NOAA is spending on JPSS in 2012. Sullivan said Dec. 2 that as long as Raytheon’s share of the funding stays at about that level into 2013, the ground system will be ready to support the late-2016 launch date for JPSS-1.

Another Raytheon division, El Segundo, Calif.-based Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems, is building JPSS-1’s Visible Infrared Radiometer Suite under a $314 million contract awarded in September 2010. ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., received a $98.6 million contract that same month to build the Cross-track Infrared Sounder.

In September, Northrop Grumman was awarded a $30 million contract to build JPSS-1’s Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder. The JPSS-1 Cloud and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System instrument is being provided by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.