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

TORONTO – The fiscal year 2019 budget proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration restores an earlier schedule for two future polar-orbiting weather satellites that faced potential delays last year.

The budget proposal released Feb. 12 includes $1.64 billion for NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), a reduction of $551 million from 2018 levels. Planned reductions in spending on the office’s two flagship weather satellite programs, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) R series of geostationary orbit spacecraft and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) polar-orbiting spacecraft, account for the change.

The budget proposal combines the JPSS program with Polar Follow On, a separate budget line in previous years that funded development of the third and fourth JPSS satellites. The new Polar Weather Satellites program will now include JPSS-2, under construction for launch in late 2021, and the future JPSS-3 and 4 satellites.

While the 2018 budget request continued to support JPSS-2, it put plans for JPSS-3 and 4 in question. The proposal sought a cut of $150 million from 2017 spending levels as the agency proposed stretching out the launches of those missions, planned for later in 2020s.

“NOAA will work to improve its constellation strategy for polar weather satellite continuity while seeking cost efficiencies, managing system technical risks, and leveraging partnerships,” the agency stated in its 2018 budget request in May 2017. “NOAA will update its constellation availability analysis to refine existing gap analysis and identify new launch dates for the [Polar Follow On]/JPSS-3 and -4 missions, consistent with the revised budget profile.”

The new budget, though, has backed away from any delays in JPSS-3 and 4. The proposal includes $330 million for those two satellites. That increase from the 2018 proposal, the agency’s budget proposal states, “will enable NOAA to maintain the original Launch Readiness Dates for JPSS-3 and JPSS-4.”

The 2019 budget proposal includes launch readiness dates of the first quarter of 2024 for JPSS-3 and the third quarter of 2026 for JPSS-4, although actual launch dates may be later depending on the need to launch those satellites. Those dates are nearly identical to those in the agency’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, while the 2018 request included no launch readiness dates for those spacecraft because of the proposed replanning of those missions.

The budget requests $10 million for its Space Weather Follow-On program, an increase of $5 million. While the program was originally envisioned as the development of full-fledged spacecraft to monitor space weather conditions, the focus of the program is now on the development of an instrument known as a compact coronagraph in partnership with the Naval Research Lab. That instrument would be flown on the GOES-U weather satellite or “another partnership mission,” according to the request.

NESDIS includes two smaller offices that deal with commercial space activities. The proposal includes $1.8 million for the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office, an increase of $600,000. The office, which licenses commercial remote sensing systems, would use the increase to handle the growing workload for licensing activities, including hiring an additional employee.

The budget also proposed an increase of $1 million for the Office of Space Commerce, to $1.8 million. That additional funding for the office would go towards efforts to facilitate a “commercial space marketplace” by serving as the point of entry for companies seeking to sell commercial satellite data to the federal government.

The budget does seek to cut spending on a commercial weather data pilot program by $2 million, to $3 million. That cut, NOAA says, reflects funding “appropriate for the scope of work expected to be performed” in the year. NOAA has so far run just a single round of the program to buy data from commercial satellite companies to test its effectiveness, with a second round of the program expected to start later this year.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...