U.S. Polar-orbiting Weather Satellite Soon Headed to Vandenberg for October launch

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WASHINGTON — The first of the United States’ next generation of civil polar-orbiting weather satellites is to be trucked from Colorado to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Aug. 29 in preparation for a late-October launch, government and industry officials  said.

The trip will take “a little over a day” to complete, said Scott Tennant, program manager for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) at Ball Aerospace & Technologies in Boulder, Colo. Ball built the NPP spacecraft platform as well as the satellite’s Ozone Mapping and Profiler Suite instrument.

Liftoff is slated for Oct. 25 aboard what could be the last launch of a Delta 2 rocket, which United Launch Alliance began phasing out several years ago as the U.S. Air Force and NASA transitioned more and more payloads to the Denver-based company’s bigger rockets.

NPP was conceived as an instrument test bed for the now-canceled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, a civil-military project involving NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense. NPP was elevated to an operational role after the parent project was dismantled in 2010.

The weather data that NPP eventually will collect “will now be used as operational weather forecast model input for both NOAA and [the Defense Department],” said Andrew Carson, NPP program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington.

NPP has suffered schedule slips and cost overruns in its lifetime. It originally was to launch as early as 2006 at an overall cost of $560 million. During an Aug. 8 conference call with reporters to preview the mission, Carson said the satellite now has a lifecycle cost of about $1.5 billion.

In June, the NASA Office of the Inspector General warned that technical problems with NPP’s instruments — specifically, the four instruments not developed by NASA contractor Ball — could curtail the useful life of the satellite. NPP was designed for a five-year mission but might last for only three years, the inspector general warned in the report.

During the conference call, industry representatives said that all NPP instruments had checked out flawlessly and were ready for the late-October flight. There are “no instrument issues,” Tennant said — loudly and twice in succession — on the call.

Divisions of Raytheon Corp., Northrop Grumman and ITT Corp. developed the four NPP instruments not built by Ball. Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., made NPP’s Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite. Development troubles related to this instrument were cited for the delay of NPP’s planned launch earlier this decade.

Other NPP instruments include the Cross-track Infrared Sounder, built by ITT Geospatial Systems, Rochester, N.Y.; the Clouds and Earth’s Radiant Energy System instruments from Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Redondo Beach, Calif.; and the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder, made by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, of Linthicum, Md.

NPP is envisioned as “a bridge to the next generation of operational environmental satellites,” Carson said.

Next-generation civil and military weather satellites now are to be developed separately. NOAA and NASA already have begun working on the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS); the first satellite will be built by Ball Aerospace and carry the same five instruments as NPP when it launches in 2016.

The first JPSS satellite was to have launched in 2014, but a NOAA budget shortfall, exacerbated by a delay in completing spending legislation for 2011, caused the launch to slip.

For 2012, the House Appropriations Committee has approved a bill that would give NOAA about $900 million for the Joint Polar Satellite Program.

That is still about $100 million below U.S. President Barack Obama’s February request for the project. Mary Kicza, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services, said during the Aug. 8 call the shortfall would likely result in some impact on the Joint Polar project. However “the exact amount of impact is not something we’re prepared to say, at this point.”

The protracted congressional debate over the national debt prevented lawmakers from doing substantial work on appropriations legislation, raising the odds that government agencies will again be funded by a series of stopgap spending bills that may not provide NOAA with the money it needs to sustain the cash-strapped Joint Polar Satellite Program.