U.S., Europe Wrestle With Weather Data-Denial Plan

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U.S. and European authorities have yet to resolve the sensitive issue of denying adversaries access to weather satellites in the future despite years of discussions and the fact that a European weather satellite with U.S. instruments is just six months away from launch, according to Gregory W. Withee, assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In a Nov. 29 address to the governing council of Europe’s Eumetsat organization in Darmstadt, Germany, Withee said the Data Denial Implementation Plan, which would be put into place as part of a joint U.S.-European polar-orbiting meteorological satellite program, “meets the needs of both partners.”

The U.S.-proposed data-denial policy “will allow NOAA and Eumetsat third-party users to have access to data from U.S. instruments during the unlikely event of data denial,” Withee said in his prepared comments to Eumetsat.

Because NOAA and the U.S. Defense Department are merging their meteorological satellite systems, U.S. military security concerns have entered into the NOAA-Eumetsat negotiations as the two sides prepare to divide responsibility for polar-orbiting weather satellites.

The first satellite built as part of the so-called the bilateral Initial Joint Polar System is NOAA-18, which carries a Eumetsat instrument and entered operations in the “afternoon” polar orbit — meaning it passes over the equator in the afternoon — in August.

The morning orbit is Eumetsat’s responsibility. Eumetsat’s Metop-A satellite, the first in this series, is scheduled for launch in June.

The importance of Metop-A to the United States has increased with the delays and cost-overruns that have afflicted the U.S. civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The first NPOESS satellite has been delayed by at least two years, to 2012.

NOAA’s current satellite responsible for the morning orbit, NOAA-17, is expected to be retired in mid-2006.

“With NPOESS sliding to the right, now more than ever NOAA is dependent on Eumetsat for the mid-morning orbit,” Withee said.

NOAA and Eumetsat also need to come to terms on the repair of a Eumetsat instrument damaged when the NOAA-N Prime satellite was dropped in a September 2003 accident on the factory floor of prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif.

NOAA and Eumetsat have been negotiating an agreement under which Eumetsat would repair its NOAA-N Prime instrument in return for extended NOAA support for a U.S. instrument to fly on a future Eumetsat satellite.

NOAA-N Prime, which was extensively damaged, is being repaired. Its launch, now scheduled for late 2007, may be delayed by 14 months to ensure continuity of coverage while NOAA waits for the NPOESS system to become available. Withee said most of NOAA-N Prime’s instruments “have been recertified and are being prepared for integration.” It will be ready to launch earlier if NOAA-18 fails prematurely, he said.