WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., won a $135 million contract to build NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2), which among other observations will monitor polar ice levels that scientists believe to be an indicator of climate change, the space agency announced Aug. 31.

“The contractor will be responsible for the design and fabrication of the ICESat-2 spacecraft bus, integration of the government-furnished instrument, satellite-level testing, on-orbit satellite check-out, and continuing on-orbit engineering support,” NASA said in a press release. The ICESat-2 project will be managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Scheduled to launch in 2016, ICESat-2 will use laser-ranging techniques to measure the topography of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets as well as the thickness of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice. The satellite also will measure vegetation canopy heights and support other NASA environmental monitoring missions.

The first ICESat satellite, launched in 2003, was decommissioned in 2010 after its primary instrument failed. The images captured by that satellite led scientists to conclude that the Earth’s ice sheets are thinning. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., built the satellite platform for that mission.

House appropriators in July targeted NASA’s Earth Science program for a $100 million budget cut in 2012. However, the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA singled out ICESat-2 as a high-priority project that should be protected “to the extent possible.”

NASA used its so-called Rapid 3 catalog of prequalified spacecraft to make the selection of the Orbital platform. The catalog is designed to expedite the procurement of satellite platforms for missions that do not require unique designs. Spacecraft selected for a given mission can be modified to meet specific mission needs.

In a Sept. 1 press release, Orbital said the ICESat-2 satellite will use the same basic LEOStar-3 platform as NASA’s Landsat Data Continuity Mission, which is undergoing assembly at the company’s Gilbert, Ariz., factory. ICESat-2 brings to five the number of NASA satellites under contract to Orbital. Three are under construction at the company’s Dulles facility: the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescopic Array; Orbiting Carbon Observatory; and Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer.



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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.