NOAA Cubesat Caught in Crossfire Between Congress, White House

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WASHINGTON — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s plan to launch an experimental weather cubesat in 2016 is in doubt because the agency staked funding for the effort to a program that fared poorly in recent budget bills.

In 2016, NOAA wanted to “actually spend some money and do a demonstration on a microwave sounder cubesat,” Tom Burns, deputy assistant administrator for systems at NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, said in a June 23 presentation to the National Research Council.

As part of a $380 million Polar Follow-on program the White House proposed in its annual budget request in February, NOAA sought $10 million for the 2016 cubesat demo. The Polar Follow-on program would allow NOAA to start work next year on the final three Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft, which will provide global weather coverage.

But on June 3, the House passed a NOAA budget that included no Polar Follow-on money at all. In the Senate, a NOAA budget awaiting a floor vote provided only $135 million for Polar Follow-on.

If the funding doesn’t materialize, it will put a cramp in NOAA’s plans to press a 12U microwave-sounding cubesat designed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory of Lexington, Massachusetts, into operational weather service in 2019 as part of the JPSS program.

Cubesats are small spacecraft built from standardized modules — units, or “U,” for short — that measure 10 centimeters on a side and are often stacked in multiples of three. NOAA’s plans include 3U pathfinders for the 12U craft it proposed in the latest budget request.

Amid a rising wave of interest in small satellites, the National Research Council on June 22 kicked off a yearlong study called “Achieving Science Goals with CubeSats” to probe whether federal agencies can do meaningful science with such small spacecraft. Officials with NASA, the National Science Foundation, NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey all appeared to share their agencies’ plans.

NOAA’s plan centers around the proposed 12U Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) cubesat. The spacecraft would carry a miniaturized microwave sounder similar to the temperature- and humidity-sensing instruments flying on NOAA’s current polar orbiters.

The miniature sounder would weigh about 4 kilograms and ride on a cubesat bus that checks in at around 16 kilograms and draws 50 watts of power, according to an abstract of MIT Lincoln Labs’ cubesat sounding program provided June 23 by William Blackwell, an assistant group leader at the lab.

Microwave sounders, along with infrared sounders, are NOAA’s “bread-and-butter” instruments for measuring atmospheric temperature and moisture levels, Burns told the National Research Council.

Besides EON-MW, MIT Lincoln Lab would also build the pathfinder cubesat Burns mentioned June 23. Called the Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration Cubesat, the 3U spacecraft would carry a multi-band microwave sounder and a GPS radio occultation sensor that infers humidity levels by measuring atmospheric distortion of GPS signals.

Kibo module NanoRacks
JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata prepares a NanoRacks CubeSats for deployment in the ISS Kibo Module. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, MIT Lincoln Lab has already launched one bug-shake cubesat for EON-MW. In July 2014, the 3U Microsized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite launched to the International Space Station aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus space tug during the Dulles, Virginia, company’s second paid cargo delivery to the outpost.

The Microsized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite carries miniaturized 118 GHz microwave radiometer and was deployed in March on a 100-day mission from station’s Japanese-built Kibo modules via a commercially operated cubesat dispenser owned by NanoRacks of Houston. June 12 marked Day 100 for the miniature sounder.

If the MIT Lincoln Lab’s Microwave Radiometer Technology Acceleration Cubesat does launch in 2016, it will launch either from the International Space Station as the Microsized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite did, or hitch a ride to sun synchronous orbit with a bigger satellite, according to the MIT abstract.

The full 12U EON-MW satellite is a stopgap measure in case future JPSS satellites fail early or are lost on launch. The current polar orbiter, Suomi-NPP, launched on a five-year mission in 2011. JPSS-1, essentially a Suomi-NPP clone, is set to launch on a five-year mission in 2017. JPSS-2 would follow in 2021.

Meanwhile, NOAA is also looking at cubesat demos for infrared sounding, Burns told the National Research Council. Possible collaborators include NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the government-funded Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, California, Burns said.