WASHINGTON — With much uncertainty surrounding its budget for the years ahead, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is beginning to consider options for reducing the capabilities planned for its next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite constellation, a NOAA official said April 28.

The spending bill that was signed into law April 15 left NOAA’s satellite development division more than $800 million short of the administration’s request for 2011. It also prevented work from beginning on several new satellite programs, which will result in delays, Mary Kicza, the agency’s assistant administrator for satellite and information service, said during a National Research Council meeting here.

NOAA started work on the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) last year after the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama dismantled the joint military-civilian National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). JPSS is designed to use the weather and climate observation sensors that were developed under the NPOESS program, and the first of at least two satellites in the series was originally planned for launch as early as late 2014.

NOAA requested $1.06 billion for the JPSS program in 2011.

For the first six months of the fiscal year, Congress was unable to pass any full-year spending bills and instead funded the federal government with a series of stop-gap funding measures that generally held spending to 2010 levels. The all-in-one spending bill passed by Congress and signed by Obama in April trimmed nearly $40 billion from the federal budget, keeping most government programs funded at or below 2010 levels through September.

NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service requested some $2.2 billion for 2011 but will have only $1.4 billion to spend this year; the JPSS program was likewise held at the 2010 level of $382 million. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told Congress prior to passing the full-year spending bill that this low level of funding would virtually guarantee the United States will face a gap in polar-orbiting weather satellite capabilities toward the end of the decade.

Though NOAA has again requested just over $1 billion for JPSS in 2012, Kicza warned that there is no guarantee the program will receive that level of funding. As such, she has directed her staff to begin prioritizing the system’s requirements and analyzing options for reducing cost.

“What we are trying to do internally is examine where are the gaps that are probable, and what do we need to do to examine our requirements and make sure our highest priorities are met,” Kicza said. “What are the relative priorities of our instruments? What happens if [the program’s budget] stays flat? What would I have to throw off to move that launch date to the left?”

In addition to delaying the JPSS program, the full-year spending bill impacted several other NOAA satellite programs. The agency had requested $3.7 million this year to begin work on the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate that it seeks to co-develop with Taiwan. NOAA intended to begin work this year on 12 GPS radio occultation sensors for a constellation of 12 small satellites, the buses for which would be provided by Taiwan. No funding was appropriated for the effort and thus work will not begin this year, Kicza said.

NOAA requested $9.5 million for 2011 to refurbish for launch the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a NASA satellite formerly known as Triana that was shelved several  years ago. While the refurbishment work is not funded this year, Kicza said NOAA is considering adding to the satellite an instrument to measure the sun’s total energy output, an important variable to scientists studying climate change. NASA’s Glory satellite was equipped with such an instrument, dubbed the Total Irradiance Monitor. But the spacecraft was destroyed in a March launch failure, putting the continuity of a 30-year data record of total solar output in jeopardy. The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics is currently developing the next-generation Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, which once was slated to fly on NPOESS.

NOAA also had requested $50 million to continue development of the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite that is being developed along with Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization. The agency will only receive $20 million for the program this year, which will delay the satellite’s launch by one year to 2014, Kicza said.

One NOAA satellite program that does appear to be on track despite the budgetary situation is the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series spacecraft. Though NOAA requested $730 million for the program in 2011 but will only receive $667.5 million, the first of four planned satellites in the series appears to be on schedule for a 2015 launch because the program has so far not used much of its budget reserves, Kicza said. However, the program is now entering the most difficult part of its development, and the challenge will be to convince lawmakers that reserve funding is still needed, she said.



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