WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department is developing requirements for its next-generation weather satellite system and might tap Northrop Grumman to build it, possibly using the contract vehicle already in place for a now-defunct effort to field a joint civil-military constellation, according to a senior Pentagon official.

Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems since 2002 has been the prime contractor for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which was intended to satisfy the climate and weather data needs of military and civilian users. The program was hobbled by an ineffective tri-agency management structure and encountered years of cost growth and delays. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama announced in February that the program would be canceled.

The Air Force needs all of the $390 million that was appropriated for its share of the NPOESS program this year to begin a new acquisition program for military weather satellites, Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space, said in a March 23 interview. The service will soon determine what kinds of sensors it will need and then choose a spacecraft to host them, he said.

“We on the Air Force and [Defense Department] side are doing a quick scrub of the warfighter requirements,” Payton said. “We’ve been doing this weather business for decades, so it shouldn’t take long. … Based on warfighter requirements, we’ll understand what kind of sensors we will need. Then we will translate that into what kind of spacecraft we’ll need. And if the Northrop Grumman design is compatible with those sensor needs, then we will probably just continue that. But we don’t want to terminate them prematurely because their design is clearly in the trade space for our immediate future.”

Payton said he is satisfied with Northrop Grumman’s performance on the multibillion-dollar NPOESS contract, which is with the Air Force, and the company can “shrink or expand” its NPOESS satellite platform design to meet the military’s needs.

“In a knee-jerk, cavalier fashion, we don’t want to get rid of that experienced work force, that knowledgeable work force, when a few months from now we might need to turn to them and say, ‘Go build us a satellite with these sensors on it,’” he said.

The Air Force for decades has relied on Lockheed Martin-built Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft for weather data. The service still has two of these satellites awaiting launch that could provide capability through 2019 or 2020, Payton said. But the Air Force would like to develop and launch the first of the new-generation spacecraft before the final DMSP satellite reaches orbit, he said.

“That’s how you insure yourself against a launch vehicle failure or an early on-orbit failure of the new satellite,” Payton said. “That’s the way we’ve been doing the GPS constellations over the decades. … We have been doing the same strategy on DMSP for years. We want to have a bird in the barn of the legacy design when we launch the first of the new design. That’s how you sustain a robust constellation.”

Meanwhile, NASA, on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has begun preparations to manage the new civil weather satellite program, dubbed the Joint Polar Satellite System, which will utilize the instruments developed for NPOESS. An agreement has been reached to transfer Northrop Grumman’s management responsibilities for the all of the NPOESS instruments to NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Goddard will select a contractor to provide satellite platforms smaller than what was planned for NPOESS.

NOAA requested $1.06 billion for the Joint Polar Satellite System in 2011, which the agency’s top official has said includes funds for NPOESS contract termination liabilities.