— The U.S. Navy inaugurated a competition July 1 to build its next-generation ocean altimetry satellite that will launch in 2013, and until the spacecraft is operational the service will be relying on the joint U.S.-French Jason 2 satellite for tactical oceanographic data.

The Navy collects space-based radar altimetry measurements of waters around the world that are incorporated into models for weather prediction and tactical battlespace characterization. The service had been relying for that information on the Geosat Follow-On (GFO) satellite built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of
But that satellite, launched in 1998, had outlived its design life by the time it was deorbited last November after suffering a battery and momentum wheel failure.

For the next satellite, dubbed GFO-2, the Navy will choose a prime contractor responsible for the satellite platform, payload and launch. Proposals are due Aug. 17, and the service anticipates issuing a contract in early 2010, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Therese Bensch, the GFO-2 assistant program manager, said in an interview.

GFO-2 will have a six-year operational design life. The Navy will consider improvements over its predecessor based on the bids submitted by contractors, but many of the requirements for the next satellite will be the same, Bensch said. The contract will include an option for one additional satellite.

The satellite is expected to cost around $115 million, with the launch costing between $30 million and $50 million, according to an industry source. Ball, Northrop Grumman Aerospace of
Redondo Beach
, Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, and Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Littleton, Colo., are all considering bidding for the program, the source said.

The Navy has worked out a deal with NASA and the French space agency, CNES, to use data from their two jointly operated oceanography satellites, Jason 1 and Jason 2, until GFO-2 is operational, Bensch said. GFO operated in an 800-kilometer-high orbit that had it pass over the same spot on Earth every 17 days. Jason 1 and Jason 2 each pass over the same spot on Earth every 10 days, and Jason 1’s orbit was modified earlier this year so that its data could be interlaced with Jason 2 data.

Nevertheless, the Navy’s ocean modeling capability has been degraded as a result of losing GFO, and it will degrade further when Jason 1 leaves service, Bensch said. The satellite was launched in 2001 and has outlived its design life. Jason 2 was launched last year and is expected to last until 2013, and the Navy hopes to have GFO-2 on orbit before Jason 2 ends operations. A third satellite in the Jason series appears to have overcome some European funding hang-ups and could also launch in 2013.

“[Using Jason data] is not as good,” Bensch said. “We don’t get what we were getting with the optimized GFO orbit, however, it is good enough.”

GFO had a five-year contractual mission life, an eight-year design life and operated for nearly 11 years, Ball spokeswoman Roz Brown said in an e-mailed response to questions. The satellite contributed data that aided submarine and mine detection and drift, as well as data that has contributed to the understanding of basin-scale ocean currents, she said. GFO’s total cost to orbit including launch was $85 million, Brown said.

“We certainly feel our technical capabilities are up to the task [of building GFO-2],” Brown said. “Ball has … a proven track record for building low-cost missions that return highly valuable data for a variety of customers.”