NASA Racing To Launch Next Landsat Mission Before 2013

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WASHINGTON — NASA and its industry partners are racing to complete development and launch the next Landsat imaging spacecraft by the end of 2012 to avoid launch range conflicts with several high-priority national missions.

The U.S. space agency is formally committed to having the $941 million Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) ready to launch no later than June 2013. But the program has long been managing to a more aggressive December 2012 target to minimize the chances of the current Landsat craft going dark before LDCM reaches orbit.

NASA contracted with United Launch Alliance of Denver in 2009 to launch LDCM in December 2012 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on an Atlas 5 rocket. Because the Atlas 5 manifest is crowded in 2013 with Defense Department and intelligence community launches, NASA cannot afford to miss the 2012 launch date, according to Steve Volz, the NASA Earth Science Division’s associate director for flight programs.

“We’re treating this almost as a planetary launch window,” Volz said.

If LDCM is not ready to launch on time, it may have to wait to launch until late 2013. Not only would this increase the mission’s costs, it also would cause the satellite to miss the spring growing season in the northern hemisphere, an important objective for the five-year mission, Volz said. Both Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 are projected to last beyond spring 2013, but the likelihood of one or both failing increases with each passing month, he said.

The most challenging piece of LDCM development has been the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) being built in-house by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The sensor — a late edition to the LDCM project — has been in fabrication for about a year, and a number of technical issues have left it with little schedule margin, Volz said in a March 10 interview.

One of the issues concerned circuit boards inside TIRS’ main electronics box. Although the boards had been used in earlier flight projects, testing discovered that they were not meeting LDCM’s thermal stability requirements. Fixing the problem cost $3.8 million, according to a March 3 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

NASA has built seven Landsat satellites since the 1970s that have continuously provided moderate-resolution imagery of the Earth’s land masses. The U.S. Geological Survey operates the two current spacecraft, Landsat 5 and Landsat 7, which are both well beyond their design lives.

For the eighth satellite in the series, NASA made an unsuccessful attempt to commercialize the Landsat mission. That was followed by an attempt by the White House to add land imaging sensors onto the next generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites, a plan it later scrapped in favor of a dedicated satellite now known as LDCM.

NASA in 2008 contracted with General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of Gilbert, Ariz., to build the LDCM spacecraft platform. That company last year sold its satellite manufacturing division to Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., which is now assembling the satellite bus with testing set to begin by the end of summer, Volz said.

The Operational Land Imager instrument being built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., is undergoing thermal vacuum testing and is on track for an early summer delivery, Volz said. The sensor will record imagery in nine spectral bands in the visible, near-infrared and shortwave infrared portions of the spectrum.

Goddard still faces hurdles to complete development and testing of TIRS and ship it by December, Volz said. The original plan was to have the instrument delivered by the time the spacecraft completes testing, but numerous minor technical issues have eroded the extra schedule and budget that was planned for TIRS, he said.

“It is using reserve faster than we’d like, but it’s not necessarily worse than we expected,” Volz said.

Meanwhile, the White House in its 2012 budget request laid out a new plan that would make the U.S. Geological Survey responsible for funding construction of future Landsat spacecraft, though they still would be built by NASA. The budget request contains $100 million next year for a revamped National Land Imaging program, $48 million of which would be allocated to early development of a Landsat 9 mission, budget documents show.