NOAA Cancels Sensor Contribution to European Weather Satellite Program

by

PARIS — The U.S. government has informed its European partners it will be unable to furnish three observing instruments it had planned to provide for Europe’s next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite system, likely forcing European authorities to de-scope the project as they scramble to finance at least part of what the United States was supposed to provide.

This was not the only piece of bad news that the U.S. agency responsible for civilian weather-satellite operations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), delivered to Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite organization and European national authorities.

NOAA also said it has not yet been able to secure financing for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite, whose construction is being financed in Europe as part of a trans-Atlantic cooperation.

NOAA’s difficulty in financing a Jason-3 carrier rocket has already forced a nearly one-year delay in the satellite’s launch, to mid-2014. The current Jason-2 satellite is nearing the end of its planned operational life. Whether it will be able to operate long enough to assure a smooth handoff with Jason-3 remains unclear.

Jason-2, which continues a U.S.-French, and now U.S.-European, bilateral effort that began in the early 1990s, was launched in June 2008 on a five-year mission.

NOAA’s budget challenges have made headlines in the United States in recent months, but European officials had hoped the trans-Atlantic cooperation in polar-orbiting satellites, wherein the United States and Europe share responsibility for coverage, would escape relatively unharmed.

But in recent letters to European authorities and a formal statement to Eumetsat’s 26 member governments Nov. 29, NOAA made its position clear.

“Regrettably, in light of ongoing budget challenges … NOAA will not be able to provide Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) instruments for flight on EPS-SG,” Mary Kicza, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said. EPS-SG is the second-generation European Polar System, planned to be in service starting in 2019 to succeed Europe’s current Metop satellites.

“With regard to the other instruments under consideration, NOAA’s budget will not allow for the procurement of the Space Environment Monitor (SEM). In addition, we have confirmed with the U.S. Department of Defense that while interest in the Low Light Imager remains, current budget realities have eliminated the possibility of that sensor being included for flight on EPS-SG,” Kicza said, according to a copy of her speech provided by NOAA.

The U.S. Department of Defense operates its own weather satellite system, called the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, in polar low Earth orbit. A successor system, called the Defense Weather Satellite System, is scheduled for launch starting in 2018.

The U.S. Defense Department, Eumetsat and NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites together constitute a Joint Polar System that crosses the equator at three separate times during the day.

For Darmstadt, Germany-based Eumetsat, the NOAA pull-out complicates a second-generation polar satellite system that was already facing financial stresses. As currently planned, EPS-SG would include two satellites in orbit at a given time, carrying a complementary set of instruments. To save total system costs, Eumetsat had planned to order two or three sets of these satellites to provide 15 to 20 years of continuous coverage.

In a relationship that resembles the roles assumed by NASA and NOAA, Europe’s 19-nation European Space Agency designs each new Eumetsat satellite system from requirements communicated by Eumetsat, and finances much of the nonrecurring engineering costs of the first model of each new generation.

Eumetsat officials had tentatively concluded that EPS-SG would cost Eumetsat members 2.3 billion euros ($3.1 billion) over 15 years for two sets of satellites, plus 540 million euros to be paid by ESA. A set of three satellites, with coverage for 20 years, would cost 3.24 billion euros to Eumetsat, plus the same 540 million euros to be paid by ESA.

ESA governments are scheduled to meet in November 2012 to decide on a multiyear program and budget, including ESA’s EPS-SG contribution. Eumetsat’s ruling council is scheduled to meet next month to fix an outline of EPS-SG instruments, in time to deliver to ESA in March a clear set of proposals for the satellites’ instruments, including who will furnish them.

It is because of this schedule that NOAA was asked to state its intentions at the Nov. 29 council meeting.

Eumetsat Director-General Alain Ratier, in a written response Dec. 5 to Space News inquiries, said the NOAA decision “will inevitably have an impact” on how Eumetsat structures EPS-SG.

“Some instruments have low priority for our users and will not be replaced, but the microwave sounder is a must, which means extra costs to us,” Ratier said. “The full picture in terms of EPS-SG payload will only emerge after discussions with our delegations in January.”

A microwave sounder that would have been nearly identical to the one NOAA was to provide to Eumetsat is now under construction by Northrop Grumman Electronics Systems Corp. in Azusa, Calif., to be placed on NOAA’s JPSS-1 satellite, to be launched in 2016 or 2017. The Northrop Grumman contract is valued at $30 million.

In her statement to Eumetsat, Kicza said it “may be possible” to add options to the Northrop Grumman contract for additional sounder instruments to cover the EPS-SG program.

NOAA had asked for $50 million for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry program in its 2011 budget, but received only $20 million. That pushed the Jason-3 launch date to April 2014. More recently, NOAA was informed that its 2012 budget for Jason-3 would likewise be held to $20 million rather than the $50 million requested.

Kicza said NOAA is working with the U.S. Navy to “determine possible options” to launch Jason-3, but that the situation remains uncertain. “[M]aintaining a launch date in 2014 will be critical to ensure data continuity” with Jason-2, Kicza said. The U.S. and European naval forces are among the users of Jason data.