Goddard Sees Plenty of Projects Coming Down the Pipeline

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is on track to ship the Solar Dynamic Observatory (SDO) to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., July 7 in preparation for a scheduled November launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.

When it leaves, it will be the second satellite to depart Goddard in the past year and a half and will temporarily leave the Greenbelt, Md.-based NASA center without an impressive piece of space hardware to show visitors. Goddard typically has at least one large in-house development program under way at any given time.

Goddard Director Rob Strain said that despite some newly vacant floor space, the roughly 10,000-person operation has plenty of projects in the pipeline, a few of which will begin to fill Goddard’s clean rooms and test chambers with space hardware in the next six months to a year.

“Within a pretty short amount of time we had within our greater four walls here completed spacecraft: [Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter], SDO and a bunch of [Hubble Space Telescope] stuff. Now it’s gone,” Strain said in an interview. “If there’s a bubble, there’s a bubble in where in the process flow these [projects] are, but there’s a bunch of stuff that requires planning, and procuring, and long lead and all that.”

Goddard is building the spacecraft and instruments for the four-satellite Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission slated to launch in 2014. The design work is well under way and Strain expects the first hardware to start showing up in the next year to year and a half.

Goddard is also preparing for an onslaught of James Webb Space Telescope hardware – mainly instrument components – that will start to arrive in the next six months for integration and testing. “In terms of work for the hands-on folks … that’s going to swamp us a little bit.”

And while the fifth and final Hubble servicing mission has been flown, Goddard scientists and engineers have more work to do cataloging and inspecting the old instruments and the tools used to swap them out for the new ones.

Looking further ahead, Goddard has been assigned the IceSat-2 and Global Precipitation Measurement missions and stands to play a big role in the Joint Dark Energy Mission that NASA is developing in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Goddard scientists and engineers are busy designing and building instruments for two Mars missions and recently won NASA funding to lead development of the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer, a $105 million satellite that will fly a Goddard-built instrument in 2015 (See related story, page 13).

In the meantime, Strain said he is pleased that SDO is finally getting packed up and ready to go.

The roughly $700 million satellite was finished late last year, but NASA could not find a launch opportunity, ultimately forcing an 11-month delay that is expected to add $50 million to the mission’s price tag, according to Dean Pesnell, SDO project scientist at Goddard.

As it stands, SDO is scheduled to launch Nov. 6, but that date could change as range officials and the launch service provider, Denver-based United Launch Alliance, work through a crowded manifest that includes two Atlas 5 missions, two space shuttle missions, a Delta 2 flight, and NASA’s Ares 1-X test flight SDO would have been delayed until January 2010 if not for NASA’s decision to postpone the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory mission to 2011, opening up the November launch slot for SDO.

Under different circumstances, Pesnell and his team would be getting ready to mark SDO’s first year on orbit instead of packing up the spacecraft for the trip down to Florida. In mid-2007, with development running behind schedule, Goddard officials went to NASA headquarters to request more time to get the SDO to the launch pad.

“We had to go beg for money to move from August to December and then the launch didn’t show up anyway,” Pesnell said.

NASA budget documents show that SDO’s development cost has risen 9 percent since 2006, to $686.6 million, a figure that takes into account the 14-month launch delay to this November. All told, NASA expects to spend some $870 million on the mission, including launch and five years of operations.

Pesnell said the launch delay has allowed the SDO team to get a head start on writing the data analysis software, a job often put off until after launch. “That means we will be doing science studies more quickly” relative to the launch date, he said.

SDO is regarded by scientists as the successor to the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a U.S.-European mission launched in December 1995 and still in service.

Although SDO has fewer instruments than its predecessor, the three sensors it carries are more advanced. They are designed to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sending down a steady stream of significantly higher-resolution images than full-view images of the sun for which SOHO is known.

SDO’s instruments include the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, built by Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., as a late-in-the-program substitution for another instrument NASA decided would not be ready in time; the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager, also built by Lockheed in Palo Alto; and the Extreme Ultraviolet Variability Experiment, built by the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...