BOSTON — The U.S. government is considering turning to one of its own laboratories to build the initial version of a key sensor needed for the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites, according to a program official.

U.S. Air Force Col. Dan Stockton, deputy system program director for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), said the government could turn to one of its own labs to build an instrument called the Conical-Scanning Microwave Sensor — if a determination is made that industry proposals present a greater than acceptable risk that the sensor would not be ready for launch in 2016.

One possibility among a variety of qualified laboratories is the Naval Research Laboratory, which has built weather instruments including the experimental WindSat sensor that is in space today monitoring microwave emissions from the Earth’s surface to determine wind speed, Stockton said.

The government began pursuing the Conical-Scanning Microwave Sensor following the cancellation of the Conical Microwave Imager Sounder (CMIS) for the NPOESS satellites, which are jointly funded by the Air Force and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and are intended to replace separate polar-orbiting satellites operated by the two agencies today.

The CMIS instrument was dropped as the government announced its plan to restructure the NPOESS program in June due to cost growth that caused the price tag for the weather satellites to rise from the previous estimate of $7.4 billion to more than $11 billion. The CMIS instrument was considered a high risk project that threatened to delay the delivery of the satellites, the first of which is supposed to launch in 2013 — five years past the original initial launch date of 2008.

As part of the new NPOESS acquisition strategy, the Conical-Scanning Microwave Sensor will be launched aboard the second NPOESS satellite in 2016 in order to allow more time for risk reduction, Stockton said. The program office would like to field the sensor in 2014, two years ahead of when it is needed, he said.

Before it was dropped from the NPOESS plan, the CMIS instrument was under development by Boeing Co. under a contract estimated to be worth as much as $298 million when it was awarded in 2001. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. had protested the award in 2001, and then re-filed the protest after the Pentagon inspector general issued a report in July that Darleen Druyun, who had served as the Air Force’s number two acquisition official at the time of the award, had rigged the competition in Boeing’s favor.

The Government Accountability Office dismissed Ball’s protest in August on the grounds that it was not timely; the agency stated that Ball should have filed suit in 2004 when Druyun admitted favoring Boeing in competitions as a result of her own employment negotiations with the company, as well as the company’s hiring of her daughter and son-in-law.

In an Oct. 27 notice posted on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site, the Air Force issued a request for information seeking industry ideas for the design of the Conical-Scanning Microwave Sensor, the replacement for CMIS.

The Air Force anticipates awarding a contract for an engineering prototype unit, related simulation work, and a flight instrument with options for two more. Stockton said that the contract will likely be awarded by October 2008, though he hopes to do so earlier.

Changes on the new sensor include a smaller revolving antenna than was envisioned for CMIS, Stockton said. The CMIS instrument featured a 2.2-meter antenna that could have disrupted the operations of other NPOESS sensors, and trying to mitigate this issue added too much weight and complexity to the satellite, he said.

Other variables that the government is considering as it develops its acquisition strategy for the Conical-Scanning Microwave Sensor is the resemblance that each copy of the sensor will bear to the others, according to the request for information. The government could choose to buy three sensors that are identical to each other, or buy an initial sensor that meets users’ minimum requirements, and then upgrade the instruments that follow, according to the document.

After reviewing industry’s responses to the request for information — responses are due in December — the NPOESS program office will brief Air Force Brig. Gen. Susan Mashiko, the NPOESS program executive officer, on the issue of holding a competition for the sensor or turning to a government laboratory, Stockton said.

The issue will then be raised at the next meeting of the NPOESS Executive Committee, which includes Air Force Undersecretary Ronald Sega, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher, and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. the committee will then settle on a direction for the procurement in February or March, Stockton said.