U.S. Air Force Spending $123.5M Weather Sat Funding on Tech Studies

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force intends to spend the $123.5 million appropriated in 2012 for a next-generation weather satellite system on studies of advanced sensor technologies and alternative constellation architectures, a service official said.

Air Force Col. Scott Larrimore, head of the weather systems directorate at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, said the service submitted its plan for utilizing the funds to Congress April 3. Lawmakers have given no signal of opposition to the plan and the Air Force is preparing a solicitation for industry support of the design studies, he said.

Congress last year directed the Air Force to cancel plans for a program dubbed the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) but provided $123.5 million for an unspecified follow-on to the service’s current generation of meteorological spacecraft. But the Air Force requested just $2 million for studies of the follow-on system in 2013, raising questions about how it would spend the 2012 appropriation.

“We are certainly very appreciative of Congress’ funding through a congressional add for the risk reduction activity for the follow-on activity,” Larrimore said in a May 23 telephone interview. “We are trying to follow the Congress’ intent of buying down the risk, investing in the most risky areas that we can envision right now of whatever that follow-on capability will be.”

Larrimore said the Air Force will examine advanced electro-optical-infrared and microwave sensor technologies for the next-generation system. The service also will take a look at alternative mission architectures including a disaggregated approach in which sensors are dispersed among several small satellite platforms rather than loaded onto larger platforms, he said.

The Air Force also wants to consider alternatives to the polar orbit that weather and mapping satellites traditionally use because of the global coverage it provides, Larrimore said. New technologies might make these alternative orbits feasible, he said.

The funding can be spent only in 2012 and 2013 so potential contractors need to understand that the activities will be “fairly severable,” Larrimore said. Thirty-nine companies attended an April 25 industry day at Space and Missile Systems Center that was held to provide information on the risk-reduction activity, he said. The service was impressed with the turnout, which included small and startup companies as well as established contractors, he said.

No constrains have been set for the follow-on program but affordability is a key factor, Larrimore said.

A requirements review for the system is concluding and the preliminary results are being coordinated within the Department of Defense, Larrimore said. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff tasked the Air Force to lead the review with the help of the other services and the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, among other agencies, he said.

Larrimore expects the results of the review to receive approval from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council in a few weeks.

An analysis of alternatives for the follow-on program is expected to get under way around the beginning of the 2013 calendar year, Larrimore said.

The DWSS program was hatched in 2010 when the White House terminated the civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was behind schedule and well over its planned budget. The White House directed the civilian National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Pentagon to pursue separate systems.

Congress expressed strong reservations about DWSS from the beginning, however. Industry officials say one of the problems with that system was that the satellites were too big and laden with too many sensors.

Until the next-generation system comes on line, the Air Force will continue to rely on its aging Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft for weather data. The service has two of those Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft in storage, with the first scheduled to launch in as early as October 2013 and the second to follow as needed.

Those remaining spacecraft, built under a program that dates back to the 1960s, are being refurbished.

Larrimore acknowledged that some hardware on the legacy spacecraft will be 25 years old by the time they are launched. He nonetheless expressed confidence that the satellites will “serve the nation well.”