DMSP satellite. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Lockheed Martin artist's concept

WASHINGTON – The massive U.S. federal spending bill passed by Congress Dec. 18 includes $18.5 million for an Air Force office tasked earlier this year with building a small weather satellite to help bridge the gap between the legacy and next-generation systems.

The provision, included in the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill, bolsters the Operationally Responsive Space office, which is used to develop space capabilities to plug gaps or address emerging military needs. The White House requested just for $6.5 million for fiscal year 2016.

In the spring, the Air Force said it would ask the ORS office to build a small satellite to replace the U.S. Navy’s WindSat satellite, which launched in 2003 to measure wind speed and direction near the sea surface. Ocean vector winds is one of the measurements targeted for the Air Force’s next-generation Weather Satellite Follow system, but that program is taking longer to come together than planned.

The Air Force briefed Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition czar, on its plan for the gapfiller in September, but Kendall asked the service to come up with a fixed-price solution, Air Force officials said.

The Air Force has tried to shutter the ORS office in recent years, only to be rebuffed by Congress. Now, in addition to the weather satellite, the office could be tasked with building a follow on to the Air Force’s Space Based Space Surveillance Block 10 satellite.

The appropriations bill, which funds U.S. government activities through the end of September 2016, was not specific about how the extra ORS money should be spent, referring to the provision only as a “program increase.”

Meanwhile, the bill also asks the head of U.S. Strategic Command to study the Air Force’s launch cadence for its next-generation GPS 3 navigation satellites in light of delays with the program’s ground system, known as Operational Control Segment, or OCX.

The Defense Department recently said it will be unable to immediately leverage the full capabilities of the satellites because the Raytheon-built OCX system needs at least two additional years of work.  The bill raised the possibility of the Air Force launching 14 GPS 3 satellites before OCX is ready.

Lawmakers want to ensure that “potential satellite deficiencies have been discovered” before the service launches most of the GPS 3 satellites.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, told SpaceNews in a Dec. 18 email that the first GPS 3 satellite is scheduled to launch no earlier than the second quarter of 2017, but industry officials expect the date to slip to 2018.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is under contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites. That contract includes options for up to four more satellites and the Air Force has said it expects to order at least two of those satellites.

The bill also added  $26 million for the second in the Defense Department’s “pathfinder” series of projects aimed at exploring new ways to procure satellite bandwidth from the private sector. The Air Force had no funding, either in 2015 or 2016, for the second pathfinder, in which the service would commit to a prelaunch lease of an entire transponder aboard a commercial satellite.  Service officials hope the pathfinders will inform their strategy for what comes after the 10-satellite Wideband Global Satcom system.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.