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04-Feb-10 | NASA budget restructures NPOESS, leaves NPP intact

The White House’s FY2011 budget, much in the news this week for having forced NASA to abandon its Constellation program and a planned return to the Moon, has implications for our ongoing understanding of climate change that are at least as significant as those for human spaceflight.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is a planned group of Earth-orbiting, weather-and-environment observers. It is meant to serve as a much-needed follow-on to several successful programs of its parent agencies, including DMSP of the Department of Defense, and POES and GOES of NOAA (in partnership with NASA).  It’s a program that has long suffered from delays and cost overruns—caused in no small part by its being under the combined aegis of all three agencies.

Now, the system will be split out into “morning” and “afternoon” orbits, with DOD handling one and NASA/NOAA handling the other.  The details of the reorganization are complicated and filled with juggling of both hardware and responsibility, with a silver lining that DOD’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program has some remaining spacecraft on the ground which can fill potential gaps in coverage until the new system is up to speed.

Despite the budgetary and organizational turmoil, the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP)—a technology prototype for the operational system—remains intact and on course, with launch aboard a two-stage Delta II vehicle now slated for “a realistic and achievable launch date of September 2011.”[NOAA Press Release, 04-Feb-10]  This is some 5½ years later than was estimated at project inception in 2002.

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