Orbital ATK JPSS
Orbital ATK's version of the Joint Polar System Satellite spacecraft. Credit: Orbital ATK.

WASHINGTON — NASA’s decision to halt work on a climate-monitoring sensor manifested to fly on a future U.S. weather satellite is but the latest twist in a program buffeted by uncertainty and competing priorities.

The space agency cited cost and technical concerns in directing a newly acquired division of Harris Corp. to stand down on the Radiation Budget Instrument, the latest in a long running series of sensors that helps scientists measure the amount of energy entering and leaving Earth’s atmosphere. But NASA began laying the groundwork for dropping the sensor, which has had difficulty finding a home, well before the end of last year, agency documents show.

“On June 8, 2015, NASA Langley Research Center issued a stop work order to Exelis on the Radiation Budget Instrument contract,” NASA spokesman Michael Finneran wrote in a June 10 email. “The stop work order was issued because the project is experiencing technical and cost concerns that require review in order to determine how best to address those concerns and move forward.”

Exelis Inc., a defense and aerospace technology firm, was acquired by Melbourne, Florida-based Harris in a deal that closed May 29. The RBI sensor contract is held by the former Exelis Geospatial Systems division of Rochester, N.Y.

The RBI is supposed to launch in 2021 aboard the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)-2 spacecraft, the second in a planned series of four polar-orbiting JPSS weather satellites. It is an upgraded version of the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System instrument, which was built by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Redondo Beach, California, and has been flying since 2011 on NOAA’s current primary polar orbiter, Suomi-NPP. A copy of the Northrop instrument will fly on JPSS-1 in 2017.

Exelis beat out Northrop Grumman for the follow-on sensor work in June 2014, nabbing a contract worth up to $208 million to build at least one and as many as three copies of the RBI.

In a June 10 email, Exelis spokeswoman Kristen Jones said, “We remain committed to a positive outcome for our customer.”

NASA, which manages procurement and construction of NOAA’s weather satellites, apparently has been contemplating removing the RBI sensor from JPSS-2 at least since last year.

According to source selection documents for the JPSS-2 satellite prime contract, NASA asked bidders Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, and Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, to submit proposals that included the option of removing the RBI instrument from their spacecraft as late as 60 days after design finalization. Those proposals, which likely took months to prepare, were in NASA’s hands in December, according to a senior NOAA official.

Orbital ATK in March won the contract, which includes options for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 and carries a potentail value of $470 million. Ball is protesting the award.

In the source selection document, NASA was mum on Orbital ATK’s plan for removing the sensor but lauded Ball’s as a “low-risk, comprehensive approach to the demanifest of the Radiation Budget Instrument.”

Orbital ATK spokeswoman Vicki Cox declined to comment on the company’s strategy for an RBI demanifest. Ball spokeswoman Roz Brown said Ball’s JPSS-2 proposal included “a number of design features” to accommodate an RBI demanifest.

The RBI sensor faces political as well as technical challenges. Congress, whose Republican majority tends to frown on climate change research spending, in 2014 refused to fund NOAA’s proposed Polar Free Flyer satellite, which was supposed to carry RBI and two other climate sensors.

Calling climate monitoring a distraction from NOAA’s core weather forecasting mission, the lawmakers directed NASA to find a home for the sensors but provided no money for the task. NASA’s response was to manifest the RBI and an ozone monitoring sensor on JPSS-2.

Meanwhile, Capitol Hill’s latest NOAA and NASA budget proposals have thrown a monkey wrench in NOAA’s JPSS plans.

An appropriations package that cleared the House June 3 would provide no funding in 2016 for any JPSS satellites beyond JPSS-2. The White House was seeking some $380 million in 2016 for JPSS-3, JPSS-4, and a small polar-orbiter to provide some redundancy for the program.

On June 11, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $135 million for those spacecraft in 2016, some $245 million below NOAA’s request. NOAA has proposed bookkeeping the final three JPSS satellites under a new line called Polar Follow-on. The Senate bill would give NOAA $5.4 billion for 2016, about $100 million below the request.

In marking up the bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee shot down an amendment offered by ranking member Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) that would have provided relief for NOAA satellites in the form of $395 million more for the agency’s Procurement, Acquisition, and Construction account.

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.