The Obama Administration announced today its long awaited decision on the future of the troubled National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). The answer: divorce.
NPOESS was initiated following a 1994 decision to merge the separate weather satellite programs conducted by the Department of Defense (DOD) for national security needs and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for civil needs. DOD and NOAA jointly and equally fund NPOESS, with DOD as the agency responsible for acquiring the satellites. NASA has been a third partner in the program, developing new technologies to be tested on its NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite, currently scheduled for launch in 2011. An Integrated Program Office (IPO) manages the tri-agency program.
Satellites in orbits circling the Earth's poles so that they pass over points on Earth at a certain time of day -- an early morning orbit, a mid-morning orbit, and an afternoon orbit -- provide weather and other environmental observations. Several years ago, the United States and Europe agreed to work together on environmental satellites and Europe provides the satellites for the mid-morning orbit. NPOESS satellites were to be in the early morning (or just "morning") and afternoon orbits.
NPOESS encoutered severe cost overruns and schedule slips. An Independent Review Team chaired by Tom Young concluded last year that the program as then structured had "an extraordinarily low probabily of success."
Under the new plan, DOD will be responsible for building and launching satellites for the morning orbit and NOAA for the afternoon orbit. NASA will acquire the satellites for NOAA as it does now for NOAA's other satellites. Instead of using the large satellites ("platforms") designed for NPOESS, NOAA will use NASA's NPP design. DOD and NOAA will still share ground facilities to obtain data from the satellites. The IPO will be dissolved.
NOAA now will have to shoulder more of the costs and the FY2011 NOAA budget request includes an increase of about $1 billion for this purpose. The implications for DOD's budget and for the prime contractor for the NPOESS satellites, Northrop Grumman Space Technology, were not available at press time.
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