DMSP spacecraft
Defense Meteorological Satellite System (DMSP) spacecraft. Credit: U.S. Air Force Credit: U.S. Air Force

WASHINGTON — A top U.S. Air Force official, worried because operators lost the ability to command a two-year-old weather satellite, has ordered its twin satellite to be kept in storage a while longer as a backup plan.

The Air Force’s move raises questions about whether Congress would reconsider its December decision to terminate the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, and ask the military to launch the second satellite, known as DMSP Flight 20. Industry officials said lawmakers could discuss the situation at a March 15 House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing.

In December, Congress terminated the DMSP program and stripped funding for the Air Force to launch the Flight 20 satellite. That satellite, built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, has been in storage in Sunnyvale, California, at a cost of about $40 million per year.

But on Feb. 11, Air Force and NOAA operators lost the ability to command its twin, already on orbit and known as DMSP Flight 19. That satellite, which launched in April 2014, is used to help weather forecasters predict fog, thunderstorms and hurricanes that could impact military operations. DOD leaders had planned to rely on the satellite through at least 2019.

Air Force officials do not yet know the cause of the problem, or if the satellite can be recovered.

But if DMSP-19 cannot be recovered, the Air Force wants to keep its options open. That could mean taking another look at launching DMSP-20.

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a March 14 email to SpaceNews that while the Defense Department still expects to complete the termination of the DMSP program by Dec. 20, DMSP-20 remains properly stored in Sunnyvale.

“As a result of the DMSP-19 anomaly, I directed the program office to take no irreversible action for the moment in order to allow the Air Force, DoD, and Congress an opportunity, if desired, to potentially evaluate the situation” he said.

Removing the satellite from its environmentally controlled storage facility is considered an irreversible action because of the payload contamination that would occur.

Greaves said the Air Force’s schedule for disposing of DMSP-20 and closing the books on program by the December deadline calls for removing the satellite from storage by June 20. The Air Force has not said whether the satellite will be scrapped or given to museum.

Built in the 1990s, DMSP F-20, was penciled in for a 2020 launch even as the Air Force studied whether the cost — including additional years of storage — was worth it.

The study, completed in September 2014, recommended against launching the satellite. But the Air Force said in April 2015 that it intended to launch the satellite in 2018 to help offset the loss of Middle East-area coverage now provided by European satellite slated for retirement in 2017. But lawmakers, unhappy about the Air Force’s weather satellite programs, opted not to fund the program in a massive spending bill in December, kicking off plans to dispose of the satellite.

DMSP F-20 has been a sore point with Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. In January, he said the Air Force wasted $518 million on DMSP-F20 and that the Pentagon would have been better off burning the money in a parking lot.

Without DMSP-F19, the Air Force does not have a clear plan to gather cloud characterization and theater weather imagery data and are the Air Force’s highest priority weather gaps.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.