WASHINGTON — The U.S. government intends to terminate Northrop Grumman’s contract to manage a troubled weather satellite program and transition responsibility for all elements of the program to NASA, an administration official told Congress March 17.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Defense Department had previously agreed informally to this transition plan for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), and the Pentagon’s acquisition chief codified it in a March 17 memorandum of understanding, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco told the House Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems is the NPOESS prime contractor, responsible for building and integrating the satellite platform and managing a group of subcontractors that are developing the instruments and ground segment. That contract will be terminated this year, but NOAA and Pentagon officials have not yet determined how much that action will cost or who will pay for it, Lubchenco said. Until this year, NOAA and the Defense Department were required to evenly split the cost of the NPOESS program.

NPOESS was designed to meet both military and civilian weather forecasting needs and was managed by NOAA and the Defense Department, with NASA as a junior partner. The program was plagued by cost overruns and delays, however, and in its 2011 budget request, unveiled in February, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama announced that it was dissolving the partnership. At the time, the fate of Northrop Grumman’s contract was unclear, even as NOAA officials said the NPOESS sensors would fly on a different platform than what had been planned.     

The government’s new plan calls for developing two separate satellite constellations to meet military and civilian needs for weather and climate data. NASA, on behalf of NOAA, will build two satellites under the newly created Joint Polar Satellite System that will launch in 2015 and 2017, Lubchenco said. The satellites will retain all of the instruments that were slated to fly on NPOESS. NOAA is now considering its options for acquiring these satellite platforms, she said.

The Defense Department still has two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft yet to launch and has not yet decided on its approach for acquiring weather satellite data in the latter part of this decade. The U.S. Air Force’s budget request for 2011 includes nearly $352 million for NPOESS.