NASA To Tap Ball Aerospace for NPOESS Preparatory Project Clone

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WASHINGTON — NASA intends to tap Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. to build a second platform for a U.S. civilian weather satellite system being managed by NASA following the White House’s Feb. 1 decision to dismantle a program that was designed to serve both civil and military users.

For more than a decade, the U.S. Air Force, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA had been working together on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). But delays and cost growth, due in part to what auditors called a dysfunctional interagency management structure, led the White House to direct the Air Force and NOAA to pursue separate satellite systems.

As NPOESS prime contractor, Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles originally was to provide the satellite platforms, manage development of the instruments and integrate the system. Northrop Grumman remains the prime contractor, but it is unclear what role the company will play in the separate NOAA-NASA and Air Force programs.

Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace built a satellite platform for a precursor mission called the NPOESS Preparatory Project. That satellite, now scheduled for launch next year, was originally intended as a test bed for NPOESS instruments, but NPOESS program delays led the government to assign it an operational role.

Plans now call for NASA, which is managing the civilian Joint Polar Satellite System on behalf of NOAA, to issue a sole-source contract to Ball for a second platform, NOAA spokesman John Leslie said June 25. The satellite, essentially a carbon copy of the NPOESS Preparatory Project satellite, with the same sensor suite, is slated for launch in 2014.


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NOAA has requested $1.1 billion for the Joint Polar Satellite System in 2011, all of which is needed to keep the two satellites on schedule, Leslie said. 

“We’re encouraged by NOAA’s decision to procure an [NPOESS Preparatory Project]-clone to fulfill the Joint Polar Satellite System,” Ball Aerospace spokeswoman Roz Brown said in a June 25 e-mail. “We feel this is the best approach to meet the 2014 mission requirement and is clearly in the best interest of the civil weather and climate community, as well as the taxpayer.”

NOAA has not decided on a platform for subsequent Joint Polar Satellite System craft, or if future satellites will host additional instruments, Leslie said.

The Air Force, meanwhile, has not announced specific plans for a new weather satellite program, but has said Northrop Grumman is a strong candidate to build the system. The service has requested $352 million next year to initiate a weather satellite program.