House Bill Leaves Last Three JPSS Satellites in Lurch

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WASHINGTON — A spending bill the House passed June 3 would give the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about $5 billion for 2016, but not a cent of the $380 million the agency sought to begin work on the final three Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft.

The roughly $5 billion NOAA budget proposed in the House Appropriations Committee’s 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 2578) matches the administration’s request for the agency’s satellite programs in nearly every other respect, fully funding requests for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R.

However, the bill now heads to the Senate without funding NOAA’s Polar Follow-on program, which includes JPSS-3, JPSS-4 and a miniature polar-orbiter that would would launch sometime between those two spacecraft as a redundancy measure.

Under the 2016 budget request the White House released in February, these final three JPSS satellites would begin launching in 2024 and maintain global weather coverage through at least 2038. If the House bill becomes law, it would fund no JPSS satellites after JPSS-2, which is designed to maintain coverage through 2025.

Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore) speaking on the House floor during the June 2 debate of the chamber's 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill. Credit: SpaceNews screen capture of C-Span video

Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore) wanted to include the $380 million the White House requested to start work on the final three JPSS satellites in 2016. However, she said “The funding levels in this bill [H.R. 2578] are stretched so thin that it’s impossible for me to find more than $300 million to find an offset.” Credit: SpaceNews screen capture of C-Span video
During floor debate June 2, Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-Ore.) filed, but immediately withdrew, an amendment that would have provided the $380 million the White House sought to begin work on the last three JPSS spacecraft. The amendment stood no chance of passage and would have been cut down on procedural grounds because Bonamici did not offset her proposed increase for the JPSS program with cuts elsewhere.

Sending H.R. 2578 to the Senate without Polar Follow-on money amounts to a House rejection of of the JPSS gap mitigation plan the administration rolled out in February in its annual budget request. To avoid a gap in global weather coverage in case future JPSS satellites are lost during launch or fail early on orbit, NOAA planned to build a free-flying gap-filler satellite that would launch in 2019 and carry a single sensor similar to a miniaturized version of the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Azusa, California, is now building for JPSS-1.

As a backup to the backup, NOAA said in the request it could launch a scaled-back JPSS-3, which would carry only two of the usual four JPSS instruments, earlier than its notional 2024 launch date.

“We support the NOAA weather satellite program which is why the bill includes $1.8 billion for weather satellite procurement, over $800 million of which is for the Joint Polar Satellite System program,” Culbertson wrote in a June 4 statement. “Given the Subcommittee’s allocation, difficult funding decisions had to be made.”

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Culbertson defended the House’s recommended funding levels for weather satellites, claiming H.R. 2578 provides a “record level of funding for weather forecasting” during what he called “an era of scarce resources.” Credit: SpaceNews screen capture of C-Span video

The White House, which has already threatened to veto the bill as written, isn’t buying that.

“Not only would the bill heighten the risk of a gap in satellite coverage, but its shortsighted reductions mean that the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites would cost taxpayers more,” the Obama administration wrote in a statement of administration policy released June 1, a day before floor debate began on H.R. 2578.

In total, the House’s bill would give NOAA about $5.2 billion for 2016: some 5 percent less than the agency has for 2015, and nearly 14 percent less than the White House requested this year. Satellite procurement accounts for fully a third of the House’s total proposed NOAA appropriation, and the difference between the satellite-procurement request and the House’s proposal is almost entirely accounted for by the omission of Polar Follow-on funding.

Aside from the the notable omission of funds for the final three JPSS satellites, the House more or less matched the White House’s procurement requests for the rest of NOAA’s satellite portfolio.

The House approved the roughly $810 million NOAA seeks in 2016 for JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 and also matched the 2016 request for the agency’s other big satellite program, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series, at about $980 million.

JPSS satellites cover the entire planet as they orbit Earth’s poles, but GOES satellites keep watch only on the U.S. coastlines. JPSS-1 would launch in 2017, while JPSS-2 would lift off in 2021. Those two satellites would maintain coverage through 2025. GOES-R, the first in a series of four geostationary weather spacecraft, is slated to launch by March 31, 2016. The series would keep watch on U.S. coasts through 2036.

Smaller NOAA satellite programs also fared well in the House’s bill, including the U.S.-Taiwanese COSMIC-2 series of GPS radio occultation satellites, which determine moisture and temperature levels by measuring atmospheric distortion of GPS signals. The program would receive the $20 million the White House sought for 2016, nearly double what it got for 2015. That total includes $10 million for COSMIC-2 ground systems.

COSMIC-2 will launch in two tranches of six. The first group, launching in 2016 will operate in a 24-degree low Earth orbit. The second, launching in 2019, is headed to a 72-degree low Earth orbit. COSMIC-2 is a follow on to the six-satellite COSMIC constellation that launched in 2006 and is expected to cost about $420 million, split evenly between the partners.

Other NOAA satellite programs for which the House bill meets the administration’s request are:

• The Deep Space Climate Observatory: A space-weather satellite that launched in February. With only operations left to pay for, the program’s budget in 2016 would drop nearly 85 percent compared with the 2015 appropriation to $3.2 million.

• The Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite, awaiting launch later this summer. The U.S.-French spacecraft is the fourth in a series of international ocean altimetry measurement missions and would receive about $7.5 million in 2016 — a roughly 68 percent decline from 2015 that is typical of a program finished with development and on the cusp of operations.

• Space Weather Follow-on: an account that would receive the requested $2.5 million in study money for a space weather satellite to succeed the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which is slated to operate at the gravitationally stable Earth-sun Lagrange Point 1 for five years.

Finally, the House bill would delete the Solar Irradiance, Data and Rescue program from the NOAA ledger. The program sought to find a home for climate, search and rescue, and marine fauna-tracking sensors orphaned after the White House cancelled the joint civil-military polar-orbiting weather satellite program that preceded JPSS.