WASHINGTON — The U.S. Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program now plans to launch two satellites in 2016 — the long-planned JPSS-1 and a smaller spacecraft with a cache of at least three instruments, an official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Aug. 27.

The added spacecraft, known for now as Free Flyer 1, would launch “in latter half of calendar year 2016,” according to Harry Cikanek, NOAA’s JPSS program director. JPSS-1, which NASA is building at its Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., using funds from NOAA, is slated to launch in late 2016.

Cikanek did not identify the rocket that will launch Free Flyer 1. But Mary Kicza, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, referred to Free Flyer 1 in July as a “Falcon-sized” satellite, a reference to Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket. That launcher is scheduled to loft its first government science payload, NASA’s Jason-3 mission, in late 2014. JPSS-1, meanwhile, is expected to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 2, the same kind of rocket that last October launched the Suomi NPP climate and weather satellite upon which JPSS-1 is based.

Free Flyer 1 is the first of two such spacecraft NOAA is planning to fly under JPSS to ensure that payloads previously slated to fly as part of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System — a civil-military weather satellite program canceled in 2010 — make it to space.

The three payloads already assigned to Free Flyer 1, according to NOAA officials, are:

  • Transponders for the Cospas-Sarsat emergency search and rescue system.
  • The Advanced Data Collection System, a payload provided by the French space agency CNES to continue the monitoring of data gathered by sensors attached to ocean buoys, other maritime platforms and marine animals.
  • A Total Solar Irradiance Sensor, a NASA instrument meant to continue the agency’s 33-year record of monitoring the sun’s energy that reaches Earth. A similar sensor is flying on NASA’s Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (Sorce) satellite launched in 2003. But plans to orbit another such sensor went awry with the 2011 launch failure that destroyed NASA’s Glory climate-monitoring satellite. A flight-spare solar irradiance monitor from the Sorce program is currently slated to launch in 2013 on the U.S. Air Force’s STPSat-3 experimental satellite.

According to a JPSS contractor, NOAA is also looking at using either Free Flyer 1 or Free Flyer 2 to host a copy of the $34.7 million Advanced Microwave Sounder instrument Northrop Grumman is building for JPSS-1.

Bill Sullivan, program director for the JPSS Common Ground System at Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems in Aurora, Colo., said the potential to host an additional Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder — which he called “probably the most important sensor to the National Weather Service” — is “in discussion.” Raytheon is building the JPSS ground system under a $1.8 billion contract awarded in 2011.

Northrop Grumman spokeswoman Alleace Gibbs referred questions about flying additional Advanced Technology Microwave Sounders to NOAA. NOAA spokesman John Leslie would not say whether NOAA was discussing adding this instrument to either of the two Free Flyer satellites the agency is planning. He did say, in an Aug. 30 email, that “the plan for Free Flyer-1 is to carry only Cospas-Sarsat, Advanced Data Collection System, and Total Solar Irradiance Sensor.” 

The JPSS Common Ground System will be used for all spacecraft in the JPSS program, Sullivan said, including the Free Flyer craft, which were not part of the program when Raytheon got its contract.

“We’ve been in discussions with [NASA] about modding the contract here to go ahead and handle the Free Flyers,” Sullivan said in an Aug. 14 interview. “The current thought is that the first Free Flyer will launch around the time of the JPSS-1 launch. I think it’s plus or minus a month.”

NOAA was banking on the Air Force-led Defense Weather Satellite System, canceled earlier this year, to host instruments not originally slated to be a part of JPSS.

NOAA’s $12.9 billion JPSS program, which will return weather and climate data through 2028, includes five polar-orbiting spacecraft. Of those, only Suomi NPP — launched in November from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. — is in orbit now.

JPSS-1, essentially a $655.5 million copy of Suomi NPP, is being built by NASA using a spacecraft bus supplied by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. JPSS-2 is tentatively scheduled for a 2021 launch. NOAA has not said when the second Free Flyer spacecraft would launch.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.