WASHINGTON — Five years after acquiring General Dynamics Corp.’s satellite facility at a fire-sale price, Orbital ATK nabbed a U.S. civilian weather satellite contract that typifies the kind of medium-sized spacecraft the company hoped to compete for when it bought the Gilbert, Arizona, plant.

In what struck some industry insiders as a surprising upset for incumbent Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Orbital ATK will build one, and possibly three, Joint Polar System Satellite (JPSS) spacecraft under a NASA contract announced March 24 and worth up to $470 million.

Orbital ATK JPSS
Orbital ATK’s version of the Joint Polar System Satellite spacecraft. Credit: Orbital ATK.
Orbital ATK’s version of the Joint Polar System Satellite spacecraft. Credit: Orbital ATK.

The $253 million base contract runs through July 31, 2020, and calls for Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK to build JPSS-2, which is tentatively scheduled to launch by late 2021. The JPSS satellites provide global weather coverage for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Orbital ATK’s option for JPSS-3 is worth $130 million and would extend the contract through July 31, 2024; the JPSS-4 option is worth $87 million and would extend the deal through July 31, 2028, according to NASA, which buys and launches weather satellites on behalf of NOAA. JPSS-3 and JPSS-4 are slated to launch in 2024 and 2026, respectively, according to NOAA.

In winning the contract, Orbital ATK bested Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colorado, which is building the JPSS-1 spacecraft slated for launch in 2017. Ball also built the Suomi NPP spacecraft, which launched in 2011 as an instrument testbed but was thrust into operational duty to avoid a gap in weather coverage.

Suomi NPP and JPSS-1 carry largely the same instrument payload, as will the Orbital ATK-built craft.

“We are disappointed that we were not chosen for the Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft,” Ball spokeswoman Roz Brown wrote in a March 25 email. “The Ball Aerospace team is performing on-cost and on-schedule for the JPSS-1 polar-orbiting satellite, as we did on Suomi-NPP. The company is in the process of reviewing the selection process related to the JPSS-2 spacecraft award.”

The Orbital ATK JPSS spacecraft will be based on the company’s LEOStar-3 satellite platform, or bus. Both the bus design and the Arizona factory once belonged to Spectrum Astro, which General Dynamics acquired in 2004 and then sold to Orbital in 2010 for $55 million in cash. At the time, Orbital said the deal would put nearly $1 billion of government business, classified and unclassified, within the company’s reach.

IceSat-2. Credit: Orbital ATK

JPSS, however, is only the second U.S. civilian satellite contract to land at Gilbert since then. The first was NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (IceSat)-2, which Orbital ATK is building under a $135 million award from 2011.

The Gilbert facility also came bundled with the General Dynamics’ Landsat-8 contract, on which Orbital ATK lost more than $20 million.

On the commercial side, Orbital ATK has kept its Gilbert workforce busy with another contract it outmaneuvered Ball to get: a contract to do final assembly and integration of 81 satellites for Iridium Communications of McLean, Virginia. Orbital ATK’s Iridium Next contract is valued at roughly $150 million, with the first two satellites slated to launch late this year.

“From a corporate standpoint, the acquisition has been as productive as envisioned at the time of the acquisition” Orbital ATK spokeswoman Vicki Cox said via email. “Also, the work force with experience, clearances and the LeoStar-3 platform that came with the acquisition, on which the JPSS satellites, Landsat and ICESat are based more than justifies the modest acquisition price.”

The main instruments on the JPSS craft are:

  • the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder from Northrop Grumman.
  • the Cross-Track Infrared Sounder from Exelis Geospatial Systems.
  • the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite from Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems.
  • the Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite from Ball.

JPSS-2 will also carry the NASA-funded Radiation Budget Instrument, a climate sensor that is similar to the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System now flying on Suomi-NPP and NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites. Congress in 2014 made NASA responsible, without a commensurate budget increase, for flying climate instruments lawmakers removed JPSS budget for fear of delaying launch of the fleet’s four main operational weather sensors.


With Orbital ATK’s win, the only JPSS spacecraft still up for grabs is a gap-filler satellite NOAA has proposed to launch in 2019 to prevent an interruption in the flow of global weather data. The so-called Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave would carry a single sensor described in 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.

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, in a March 18 hearing of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said the gap-filler instrument could be provided by MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts. NOAA has made overtures to NASA to help pay for the instrument, Sullivan told lawmakers, because “it’s an interesting Earth-observing technology as well.”

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.