NOAA Looks To Begin Work on Gap-filler Satellite in 2016

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WASHINGTON — The U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to begin work next year on an interim satellite that would launch in 2019 to avert a looming gap in weather coverage from polar orbit, according to documents release Feb. 2 with the agency’s 2016 budget request.

2016 NOAA Whitehouse Budget
Credit: SpaceNews

This long-awaited gap-mitigation plan is part of the roughly $2.4 billion budget NOAA seeks for its Satellite Information Service in 2016. That represents a 6.5 percent increase over the 2015 civilian weather-satellite appropriation, and nearly a quarter of the total NOAA request for 2016.

The gap-filler is included in a $380 million request for a Polar Follow On program designed to achieve robustness in NOAA’s polar weather constellation as early as 2023. Also included in that account are funds to begin work on a third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) spacecraft, the documents show.

NOAA’s primary polar-orbiting weather satellite, the Suomi NPP built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, was launched in 2011. Ball is building a JPSS-1 satellite slated to launch in 2017 and is among the bidders for JPSS-2, the contract award for which is expected in April.

Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS). Credit: NASA
The budget includes a scaled-back JPSS-3 satellite that would carry only half the usual JPSS instrument complement, including the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (above) and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder. Credit: NASA

Experts have warned that the agency could suffer a gap in coverage if JPSS-1 is lost in a launch or on-orbit mishap.

Under the plan laid out in the 2016 request, JPSS-1 will launch by March 31, 2017; JPSS-2 by Dec. 31, 2021; JPSS-3 by March 31, 2024; and JPSS-4 by June 30, 2026.

The gap-filler, which NOAA calls Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave would carry a single sensor described in the budget documents as “a miniature microwave sounder that approximates the atmospheric profiling capabilities of the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder” aboard Suomi NPP and the JPSS satellites. The Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder was developed by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Azusa, California.

NOAA also needed a back-pocket option to keep the polar orbit covered if JPSS-2 fails, and the answer, budget documents show, is a scaled-back JPSS-3 satellite that would launch earlier than now planned and carry only half the usual JPSS instrument complement: the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder and the Cross-track Infrared Sounder built by Exelis Geospatial Systems in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

NOAA is seeking $809 million for what it calls its JPSS account, which is distinct from the Polar Follow On account and includes JPSS-1, JPSS-2, the ground system and Suomi NPP operations. That figure represents a $107 million decrease from 2015, and tracks closely with previous expectations, NOAA said.

GOES-R series weather satellite at the company’s Denver facilities in late 2014. Credit: Lockheed Martin
NOAA is seeking $870 million, some $110 million less than 2015 for GOES-R. Credit: Lockheed Martin

For its other flagship weather satellite program, known as Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Systems (GOES)-R, NOAA is seeking $870 million, some $110 million less than 2015, also reflecting an expected decline from peak funding years. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is building four GOES-R-series satellites that will monitor weather from orbital stations overlooking the U.S. coastlines through 2036.

The first of those satellites, GOES-R, is slated to launch by March 31, 2016, with GOES-S launching by June 30, 2017, according to the NOAA request. Like JPSS, the GOES-R program is expected to cost about $11 billion, in total.

Other highlights of NOAA’s 2016 satellite budget request include:

  • Roughly $20 million for the joint U.S.-Taiwan COSMIC-2 constellation of 12 GPS radio occultation satellites, which measure atmospheric distortion of GPS signals to extrapolate temperature, pressure and humidity conditions. The satellites will launch in batches of six in 2016 and 2019.

The figure includes slightly more than $10 million for COSMIC-2 ground systems, an increase of more than $3 million that “will be utilized to complete all IT security testing and verification” of the first six satellites, which will operate in a 24-degree low Earth orbit. NOAA also wants about $10 million for the second set of COSMIC-2 satellites, which are headed to a 72-degree low Earth orbit.

COSMIC-2, a follow on to the six-satellite COSMIC constellation that launched in 2006, is expected to cost about $420 million, split evenly between the partners.

  • $2.5 million for a new account called Space Weather Follow On. NOAA would use the money to study options for a next-generation space weather satellite to replace the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which is set to launch Feb. 8 and operate until 2019.