WASHINGTON — The Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) passed its critical design review in late May, clearing the way for construction of the moderate-resolution satellite. While NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey still hope to launch the nearly $1 billion mission by the end of 2012, officials say the launch could slip as much as six months to mid-2013.

Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for science, told the U.S. Government Accountability Office that LDCM “is currently scheduled to launch between December 2012 and June 2013,” according to an April 8 letter he sent in response to a draft report on U.S. environmental satellite capabilities.

In a June 11 e-mail to Space News, Weiler said NASA and its partners “are doing everything possible to make the aggressive launch date in December. But, as YOU know, we can never predict all the unknown unknowns that come up in any major development program.

“Right now, based on what we know, we are on track for that [December] 2012 date,” Weiler continued. “If nothing really bad happens, and I will NOT speculate on the myriad of things that can happen in any space mission’s development, we will make it.”

LDCM officials echoed Weiler’s comments, saying they are managing the program to the end-of-2012 target for launching the Landsat follow-on craft atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

“As an explicit part of the Agency’s commitment decision for LDCM, the mission was directed to manage to an earlier December 2012 launch date target in order to maximize the value to the nation, while balancing schedule and risk,” NASA’s LDCM Project Manager Bill Ochs wrote in a June 4 e-mail to Space News. “As with all other NASA projects, this balance is continually evaluated and refined. At present, LDCM continues to be on track for a [December 2012] launch.”

LDCM is the eighth in a series of moderate-resolution land-imaging satellites the United States has been launching since 1972, usually under a partnership between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). It is intended to ensure there are no breaks in the gathering of remote sensing imagery collected by the two Landsats currently on orbit Landsat 5 and Landsat 7.

Although Landsat 5 has enough propellant to last until 2012, the satellite is 26 years old and could fail at any time, according to USGS officials. Landsat 7, while only 11 years old, has been returning degraded imagery since its main instrument malfunctioned in 2003.

Orbital Sciences Corp. is building the follow-on Landsat observatory sometimes referred to as Landsat 8 — under a $116 million fixed-price contract it inherited in March when the Dulles, Va.-based company acquired General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of Gilbert, Ariz., which won the contract in 2008.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., is building the satellite’s Operational Land Imager under a $128 million contract NASA awarded in July 2007. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which has overall responsibility for LDCM’s development, is also building the spacecraft’s other instrument, the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). 

TIRS was not part of the original plan for LDCM, an omission that dismayed water resource management officials in arid western states accustomed to receiving the thermal imagery from the current Landsat observatories. NASA added the instrument to LDCM in 2009 after an independent review team determined the program had a less than 20 percent chance of making its then-targeted launch date of July 2011, according to a February 2010 Government Accountability Office report. As a result, the launch was postponed 18 months to December 2012, giving NASA time to evaluate and decide on the addition of the infrared sensor, estimated to cost $134.2 million to develop, test and integrate.

Today, NASA says the program remains on budget at a total cost to the agency of $942 million, including the TIRS instrument. Ochs said the Operational Land Imager is planned for delivery to Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Arizona facility for integration and testing with the spacecraft in September 2011, and that the TIRS instrument will follow in January 2012. He said LDCM is slated for delivery to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., in September 2012 in preparation for the December 2012 launch.

Meanwhile, USGS has been working with NASA to shore up an anticipated funding shortfall in its budget between 2011 and 2013 for the $220 million ground system it is developing for LDCM.

Bruce Quirk, USGS program coordinator for the Land Remote Sensing Program, said NASA is paying for some flight operations team support this year in exchange for the USGS picking up some post-launch costs that NASA previously had responsibility for covering.

Other steps include “re-architecting the data processing and archive system to better utilize the heritage Landsat ground system,” Quirk said in a June 8 e-mail to Space News, adding that the data processing and archive system was originally designed with a more flexible and efficient service-oriented architecture in mind.

The remaining shortfall, which included funds needed to enable the ground system to fully integrate data from the new TIRS instrument, was addressed in the Survey’s 2011 budget request.

“Assuming the Congress approves the budget request, USGS will have sufficient resources to complete the ground system in time to support the December 2012 launch date,” Quirk said.

Other long-term cost savings include using the mission operations center at Goddard and indefinitely postponing a plan to place the primary LDCM mission operations center at the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“The original plan was to move the primary [mission operations center] from Goddard to EROS following the handover of the mission from NASA to the USGS,” Quirk said. Instead, the USGS plans to utilize the primary mission operations center at Goddard “for at least the first year of mission operations.”

In addition, NASA and USGS agreed to use a NASA flight operations team to support LDCM development and on-orbit checkout.

“The USGS is still responsible for flight operations for the mission and will be solely responsible for operating the LDCM after handover from NASA,” he said.

LDCM is expected to operate on orbit for five years, though like its predecessors, the satellite could remain operational well beyond its design life. In the meantime, NASA and the USGS are hopeful the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama will take steps to ensure a smoother transition to future Landsat missions.

In 2007, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a strategy for a National Land Imaging Program to be led by the Interior Department that would acquire Landsat-type data beyond LDCM, “but that plan has not yet been implemented,” Weiler told the Government Accountability Office in his April 8 response to its draft report. “Under this construct, future Landsat-type satellites would be developed by NASA on a reimbursable basis, much like the civil weather satellites.”

The report, “Environmental Satellites: Strategy Needed to Sustain Critical Climate and Space Weather Measurements,” asserted that the lack of a funded implementation strategy for Landsat-like satellites “illustrates that having an approved plan is not enough to ensure that critical satellite capabilities are obtained, and reiterates the need for an ongoing process that aligns interagency strategies with individual agencies’ plans and annual budgets.”