WASHINGTON — A U.S. Air Force decision to defer, until 2020, the launch of an aging weather satellite has scuttled NASA plans to fly a high-priority climate change research satellite as a co-passenger, according to a senior NASA official.

NASA had hoped to launch the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESat 2) in 2016 together with the Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) F20 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. But that tentative arrangement fell through in March when the Air Force opted to push back the DMSP mission, said Michael Freilich, NASA’s Earth science director.

Up until then, NASA had been working on “a real sweet deal” in which it would contribute $50 million to help Atlas 5 maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) complete development of a dual payload launch adapter in exchange for a ride to orbit, Freilich told the U.S. National Research Council’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space July 10. But the Air Force decision torpedoed the plan because NASA did not want to wait until 2020 to begin the ICESat 2 mission, he said.

As a result, Freilich said, “we don’t have a launch vehicle for” for ICESat 2, whose mission has been assigned a high priority by the Earth science community in its 2007 decadal survey of missions. NASA still hopes to launch the spacecraft in 2016, Freilich said.

“We were working this ‘adapter’ design with the Air Force for 18 to 24 months, stopping in March 2012 when the Air Force pushed back their launch date,” NASA spokesman Steven Cole said via email July 12. Discussions were “at a very early stage [and] no NASA funds had been spent” on the dual launch adapter, he said.

DMSP F20 is the last of two remaining satellites in the DMSP program, which has provided weather data to the Pentagon since the 1960s. It was built in the 1990s, along with the DMSP 19 satellite that is slated to launch in 2014.

Air Force plans for a next-generation weather satellite system are uncertain following Congress’ cancellation of the Defense Weather Satellite System.

ULA also has been working on an Atlas 5 dual payload adapter to launch the Air Force’s GPS 3 navigation satellites two at a time starting around 2017.

Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for Denver-based ULA, said the GPS dual launch arrangement is not affected by NASA’s cancellation of plans to launch ICESat 2 together with DMSP F20.

ICESat 2 is a follow-on to NASA’s ICESat 1 observatory, which was decommissioned in 2010 after its primary instrument failed. Like its predecessor, ICESat 2 will measure changes in sea ice thickness and in the height of global vegetation canopies.

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., is building the ICESat 2 spacecraft under a $135 million contract awarded in 2011. Fibertek of Herndon, Va., holds a $26 million contract for ICESat 2’s primary instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System.

The White House requested $157.2 million for ICESat 2 in 2013, which is expected to be the peak spending year on the mission. NASA expects to spend $752.4 million on ICESat 2 through September 2016, up from the $650 million price tag originally assigned to the mission.

Although NASA’s Earth science budget has been increasing — from $1.4 billion in 2010 to $1.76 billion by 2012 — agency officials say skyrocketing launch costs have crimped budgets for new missions. Freilich said July 10 that at current prices, NASA can afford to launch “one to two” Earth science missions a year.

The fully fueled ICESat 2 satellite will weigh about 1,431 kilograms, according to NASA. That means there are several rockets in the NASA Launch Services 2 catalog capable of lofting the satellite to its intended orbit: ULA’s Delta 2, Atlas 5 and Delta 4; Orbital’s Antares; and Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9. Of these, only the ULA vehicles currently have enough missions under their belt to qualify to launch high-value scientific satellites like ICESat 2.

The Delta 2, once a workhorse for NASA and the Air Force, is out of production, but ULA has five vehicles remaining in its inventory. NASA in March identified Delta 2 as the leading candidate to launch three satellites from 2014 through 2017: the Soil Moisture Active-Passive satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 and the Joint Polar Satellite System-1.

Freilich said NASA could announce an award for these launches as soon as July 16.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 originally was supposed to fly atop Orbital’s Taurus XL, but the contract was canceled after that rocket experienced back-to-back failures that destroyed a pair of NASA Earth science satellites. Freilich said the mishaps cost NASA about $1 billion combined.

Operators of uncertified rockets with at least one successful flight are eligible to bid for launches of NASA science payloads as long as they also submit a plan for gaining certification prior to the scheduled launch date, said George Diller, a spokesman at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Falcon 9 has flown three times. Antares’ maiden flight is scheduled for December. To get certified, rockets have to log multiple successful launches and pass many NASA reviews.

In March, Steve Volz, associate director of flight programs in NASA’s Earth science office, said while fledgling rockets like Falcon 9 might be acceptable for missions late this decade, they carry an unacceptable risk for mid-decade launches.



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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.