JPSS-1 undergoing testing
JPSS-1 undergoing testing. Credit: Ball Aerospace

GREENBELT, Md. — An instrument Northrop Grumman is building for the next polar-orbiting U.S. civilian weather satellite will miss its March delivery date by months but will not hold up the satellite’s launch, NOAA officials said here April 27.

The Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems of Azusa, California, is building for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)-1 under a $30 million contract awarded in 2011 will not arrive for integration with its host spacecraft until “early fall,” Steve Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, told SpaceNews during the NOAA Satellite Conference here.

Harry Cikanek
Harry Cikanek, director of the JPSS program at NOAA. Credit: NOAA

JPSS-1 is being assembled in Boulder, Colorado, by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the spacecraft’s prime contractor.

At this point, all the JPSS-1 instruments “except for ATMS are mounted and installed in the spacecraft for testing,” Volz said in a presentation.

The delay is due to contamination in some of ATMS’s amplifiers. The problem was discovered last year when the instrument was going through environmental testing, said Harry Cikanek, director of the JPSS program at NOAA. Cikanek said the contamination was due to “process control issues” at Northrop.

“That introduced contamination into a sealed package, so what we’re having to do is clean all that up and then reseal it and reinstall it,” Cikanek said. Northrop discovered the contamination after the instrument went into environmental testing, prompting the company to take the instrument apart so the detectors could be cleaned.

Now “we’re in the repair process, then we’re going to put [ATMS] back together and send it through an environmental test program again,” Cikanek said April 27.

ATMS instrument for JPSS
The delivery delay is due to contamination found in some of the amplifiers for the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS) . Credit: NOAA

The amplifiers allow ATMS to accurately convert measurements of microwave radiation in the atmosphere, from which temperature and pressure can be inferred, into digital signals that ground systems can capture and feed into forecasting models, Cikanek said.

Northrop has been working on a fix for the dirty amplifiers since June, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued in December. Northrop spokeswomen Yolanda Murphy and Diane Pennington did not immediately reply to an April request for comment.

Volz said a late ATMS delivery will not prevent JPSS-1 from launching by March 2017. The NOAA satellite boss, who joined the agency from NASA in November, added NOAA is even “shooting for an earlier launch if at all possible.”

The earlier launch NOAA has in mind is December 2016, according to a slide presented here April 27 by John Murphy, chief operating officer of the National Weather Service. The weather service is part of NOAA.

Besides the one that will fly on JPSS-1, Northrop is also under contract for three more ATMS instruments. NASA, which procures and builds satellites on NOAA’s behalf, ordered the instruments last year as part of a bulk-buy of JPSS instruments for future missions.

The JPSS program will eventually include four satellites that will maintain global weather coverage through 2038 using a ground system built by Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems. The JPSS constellation will also include a so-called gap-filler satellite that will launch in 2019 and carry a single sensor similar to a scaled-down version of ATMS. NASA has not put this sensor under contract yet.


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.