SAN FRANCISCO — The precursor to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) will not be launched until late 2011, nearly a year later than planned, due to delays in production of one of the spacecraft’s scientific instruments, the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS), according to government officials attending the American Geophysical Union Conference here.

“Last year, we were hoping NPP [NPOESS Preparatory Project] would launch in late 2010,” Michael Freilich, Earth Science Division director at NASA headquarters in Washington, told scientists during a Dec. 17 town hall meeting. “This year, we are hoping that it is going to launch in late 2011. CrIS is now on the critical path to NPP and is causing a substantial delay.”

NPOESS prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems of Los Angeles and CrIS subcontractor ITT Space Systems of Rochester, N.Y., were scheduled to deliver CrIS to Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., for integration in the NPP spacecraft early in 2009. That delivery was set back several months when thermal vacuum tests detected problems with some of the sensor’s computer chips. Those issues continue to delay production of the instrument, which is designed to provide detailed information on atmospheric temperature and moisture to meteorologists and scientists. Late in 2009, CrIS was undergoing a final evaluation when contractors discovered that a circuit card assembly was not hardy enough to meet the rigorous standards set for space-based electronics. Instead of simply swapping out that circuit board for another, the team, in consultation with NASA officials, decided to replace the board and conduct another round of thermal vacuum tests on the instrument. “We made a decision with our partners at NASA to take the lowest risk path,” said Robert Burke, vice president for civil and military systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems’ space systems division.

The result will be a six- to nine-month delay in the NPOESS Preparatory Project, according to a former NPOESS program official.

The NPP mission has grown in importance as NPOESS, a multi-satellite constellation designed to meet the weather- and climate-observation demands of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Defense Department, has experienced setbacks and delays. “NPOESS has been a troubled program,” Freilich said. “There is little question about that. Five billion dollars or so into it, pretty much all the issues have been taken care of with the exception of capabilities and requirements, implementation approach, the governance and the budget. But the rest of the stuff is pretty well in hand.”

NPP originally was conceived as a testbed for advanced NPOESS sensors as well as a bridge between  NASA’s aging Earth Observing System climate-research satellite fleet and NPOESS, but it is now expected to take on an operational weather forecasting role. NPP includes five sensors. Three sensors built under NASA’s direction have been completed: the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite, built by Ball Aerospace, and the Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System and Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder, both built by Northrop Grumman.

“The NASA instruments are all on NPP, everything is fine there,” Freilich said. “We are still waiting on deliveries of VIIRS [Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite] and CrIS from our interagency partners at the Integrated Program Office.” VIIRS, a sensor designed by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., to gather data in more than a dozen spectral bands on the atmosphere, clouds, land and sea, experienced technical hurdles during development that have now been cleared, government and industry officials said. “There is a groundswell of support for the performance of that sensor. VIIRS completed a pre-ship review with NASA, NOAA and the Defense Department participating,” Burke said. “It is now sitting safely in a shipping container and is scheduled to be on a truck to Ball Aerospace on Jan. 4,” he said. Since NASA committed in 2007 to a firm cost and schedule for NPP, the project’s cost has increased by more than $110 million and its launch has been delayed more than three years from what at that time was an April 2008 target. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in March 2009 blamed the cost growth and schedule delays on VIIRS and CrIS, both of which are being developed under contracts overseen by the NPOESS Integrated Program Office instead of NASA.

In spite of the most recent delay, CrIS also is nearing completion. “CrIS has completed all of its testing and was getting very positive reviews from scientists,” Burke said. “There is no question whether we are going to deliver a sensor that does the job. This was simply a workmanship issue.”

ITT spokesman Daniel Hucko  added in written statement: “ITT is proud to have designed and built CrIS, the next-generation sounder that will provide a two [to] three times improvement in performance over the current generation of sounders. During testing, ITT discovered some anomalies in a very small number of components on the CrIS instrument, which were reported immediately to Northrop Grumman and the NPOESS Integrated Program Office. The issues all have been satisfactorily resolved and ITT is now working with our partners to finalize a test plan that will culminate in the delivery of a high-quality, thoroughly tested CrIS instrument to Northrop Grumman in the summer of 2010.”

In spite of the most recent setback, government and industry officials say NPP and NPOESS made significant progress in 2009, including development of advanced sensors and ground systems. “Completing the first article sensors was very difficult,” Burke said. “We were pushing technology. That work is now behind us.”

Moreover, government officials say the NPOESS program must succeed. “The nation needs NPOESS,” Freilich said. “We need it for our weather forecasting. We need it for a whole variety of civil and national security applications.”

Because of its importance, NPOESS is receiving scrutiny at the highest levels of government, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where officials have called for an early 2010 meeting to bring all sides together in an attempt to correct the path of the troubled program, Freilich said. “I believe the administration is committed to coming to some sort of a solution,” he added.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...