PRIVATE stylefile:c:!temp!~pr00000b28000100128224000.STY The White House is close to giving NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey the green light to pursue a free-flying satellite to replace a pair of old and ailing Landsat spacecraft that are not expected to survive the decade.

With Landsat users totally reliant on spacecraft that are far from healthy, U.S. government and industry officials said all indications are that the White House is willing to back away from last year’s decision to rely on the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites to collect Landsat data and instead authorize the pursuit of some type of dedicated land-imaging satellite instead.

The White House just last year endorsed a plan to ensure long-term continuity in the collection of Landsat imagery by transitioning that job to the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) beginning with the first spacecraft in the series.

The plan, the product of months of interagency negotiations, left open the possibility of funding one final dedicated satellite mission to bridge the gap between the demise of the increasingly creaky Landsat 7 spacecraft and the launch of the first NPOESS satellite, which at that time was slated for a 2009 launch.

But in the 14 months since White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger signed off on the new Landsat data continuity strategy, NPOESS has encountered technical and budgetary problems so severe that the U.S. government is considering a fundamental overhaul of the civilian-military weather satellite program.

At the same time, cost estimates for developing an operational Landsat-type sensor for NPOESS have swelled dramatically, threatening to eclipse what the government would expect to spend building a free-flying Landsat incorporating a proven instrument design.

Between the clouds of uncertainty hanging over the NPOESS program and the growing likelihood that the pair of old and ailing Landsat spacecraft now in orbit would not survive the decade, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey officials began pressing the case earlier this year for building a dedicated land imaging satellite to head a big gap in a decades-long record of the Earth’s changing land surface.

In late September, officials from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey took a recommendation to White House budget and science policy staffers to take the land imager off of NPOESS and pursue a dedicated satellite instead, according to government and industry sources following the matter.

NASA’s deputy associate administrator for science, Colleen Hartman, said through a spokeswoman Oct. 19 that the U.S. space agency continues to abide by last year’s decision to develop a Landsat-type sensor for NPOESS. However, Hartman acknowledged that the already past-due solicitation for the sensor, the Operational Land Imager, remains on hold with no projected release date .

Jay Feuquay, coordinator of the land remote sensing program at the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a brief interview Oct. 28 that a dedicated satellite is on the table, but he said there have been no decisions made.

“The [U.S. Geological Survey] is part of an interagency group that has provided information on Landsat to [the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Office of Management and Budget] in the last few months, and [the U.S. Geological Survey] understands that the White House is continuing to assess the options and one of those options is a free-flyer,” Feuquay said.

White House Office of Science and Technology Policy spokesman Donald Tighe declined to comment, saying the office does not discuss internal policy deliberations.

Although it is clear to government and industry sources following the issue that a land imager will not be added to the first NPOESS satellite, they said it is less clear whether the transition strategy would be abandoned altogether or just deferred. Some sources said that if a decision is made to delete the land imager from NPOESS it is unlikely to be added back. Others said it is possible that the transition to NPOESS would be kept as a goal, albeit a longer-term one.

Still undecided , government and industry sources said, is the path NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey would take in pursuit of a Landsat dedicated satellite, or free-flyer as it is known in the industry.

Though the U.S. Geological Survey is said by sources to favor building a government-owned and -operated satellite with an emphasis on minimizing technical and schedule risk, some senior NASA officials, including NASA’s associate administrator for science, Mary Cleave, are said to be encouraging commercially driven approaches, such as a data buy.

“If NASA is tasked, the agency will look into various procurement approaches,” Cleave said through a spokeswoman Oct. 28.

NASA’s last attempt to commercialize the collection of land imagery fell apart in 2003 when the agency rejected the only bid from industry it received as a bad deal for the government. Critics of NASA’s failed effort to form a public-private partnership to ensure Landsat data continuity said at the time, however, that NASA itself was largely to blame because of the way it structured the deal.

Satellite vendors and at least one commercial remote sensing firm that see an opportunity potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars are starting to circle.

Officials at Ball Aerospace and Orbital Sciences Corp. both said they would be interested in building a free-flying Landsat spacecraft should the government pursue that route.

“Should the U.S. government decide to proceed with the proposed Landsat Gap-filler satellite, Orbital would be very interested in making a competitive bid for the design, development and manufacture of the spacecraft,” Jack Danko, Orbital’s executive vice president and general manager of the Dulles, Va.-based company’s Satellite and Related Space Systems Group, said Oct. 27.

Ball Aerospace spokeswoman Emilia Reed also acknowledged that the Boulder, Colo.-based instrument and satellite builder had been sizing up the opportunity. “If the government’s ultimate decision is to do a free-flyer mission, Ball Aerospace would be very interested in bidding on that,” Reed said.

Other satellite builders said by government and industry sources to be keeping a watchful eye on the Landsat deliberations are Scottsdale, Ariz.-based General Dynamics C4 Systems, which acquired Spectrum Astro in 2004, and MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian firm that has been making the rounds in Washington pitching a low-cost, two-satellite constellation that would build on work it is doing for RapidEye, the German-led consortium developing a five-satellite constellation of medium-resolution imaging satellites.

Meanwhile, Orbimage, the Dulles, Va.-based firm poised to become the largest U.S. remote sensing firm once it completes its acquisition of Space Imaging Inc., said it thinks the government would be well served to pursue a data buy deal — but only if the government is willing to specify the data it needs and let industry go out and build an appropriate satellite with minimal civil servant oversight.

Tim Puckorius, Orbimage’s senior vice president for worldwide marketing and sales, said in an Oct 20 interview that Orbimage made a Landsat data-buy pitch to the government prior to last year’s decision to transition the measurements to NPOESS.

Puckorius said Orbimage still thinks there is a strong case to be made for a data buy, provided the government puts hundreds of millions of dollars on the table, stands back and lets industry go get the data.

“In our concept the government doesn’t have much insight into the system’s construction,” Puckorius said. “They just have insight into the data and data policy, because that is the only way you can make it work.”

Puckorius said that although the company has shared its data-buy concept with policymakers and congressional appropriators and “gotten some encouragement,” the company is not devoting that much attention to Landsat.

“Bottom line is that until there is real funding put in place or a high probability that some funding could be put in place, I don’t think you are going to see much activity on our side promoting this concept,” he said.