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Northrop Sees Safe Flying For Weather Satellite Program

By | April 24, 2006


      A satellite system for monitoring the Earth’s climate and weather patterns probably is safe from congressional budget cutters because it will provide vital information, both defense-related and otherwise, according to an official from Northrop Grumman Corp., the prime contractor for the program.

      The National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) has capabilities that "the government will find very necessary," according to Alexis Livanos, president of Northrop Grumman Space Technology, the unit of the company that is heading the program.

      A project of Northrop Grumman’s Space Technology unit, NPOESS is what the company terms "the nation’s next-generation environmental satellite system. Serving civil, military and scientific users, the system merges the nation’s current polar-orbiting weather satellite systems into a single, national program," according to the company said.

      Even in this time of increasingly tight defense budgets with acquisitions programs competing for scarce dollars, NPOESS is a fairly safe bet to continue, according to Livanos, who spoke at a press briefing held by the company in Washington.

      Asked to gauge the odds that Congress would cancel NPOESS, Livanos replied simply, "Low."

      There is "strong advocacy" for the program, he said, and although its particulars may change, it is likely to go forward.

      "There is a need for this program, and I think people realize that," Livanos said.

      He spoke about NPOESS in the context of a wide range of space programs, both defense-related and otherwise, in which Northrop Grumman is participating.

      These varied projects include the Defense Support Program, a satellite portion of the United States’ early warning system; the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a tracking system for missile defense; and the James Webb Space Telescope, an instrument for astronomical studies.

      As defense programs go, NPOESS is unusual in part because it is a combined effort of several federal agencies with very different agendas.

      A joint effort of the Department of Defense (DOD), NASA, and the Department of Commerce, NPOESS constitutes the "first convergence of civilian and military environmental sensing requirements into a single national satellite system," according to Northrop Grumman.

      The program is supposed to start launching its constellation of satellites in 2009, according to the company.


      But the program also has budgetary issues on its horizon. NPOESS has exceeded its original cost projections to an extent that has triggered a congressional amendment regarding defense cost overruns.

      The amendment in question is the Nunn-McCurdy amendment, which flags such defense programs, and even puts them at risk of cancellation.

      Adopted by Congress in 1982, the Nunn-McCurdy amendment mandated the termination of weapons programs whose total cost ran more than 25 percent over original estimates, unless they were certified as critical systems by the Secretary of Defense or if the cost growth was attributable to certain specified changes in the program.

      A program so identified is said to have incurred a "Nunn-McCurdy breach."

      As one such program, NPOESS is far from alone.

      In its latest selected acquisition reports (SAR) to Congress for the December, 2005 period, DOD said that NPOESS was one of three DOD programs with Nunn-McCurdy breaches exceeding 25 percent over the current baseline estimate.

      In fact, there are dozens of programs that have breached "Nunn-McCurdy," as the amendment commonly is known. In its latest SAR, for example, DOD noted that there were some 25 defense acquisition programs with breaches of more than 50 percent.

      In the case of NPOESS, the precise amount of the breach, and the precise cost of the overall program, are not entirely clear.

      NPOESS reportedly was supposed to cost $7.4 billion and start launching in 2009, but federal officials have told Congress that they now expect the launching to begin in 2012, and the cost of the program to be some $3 billion higher. According to DOD’s latest SAR, however, NPOESS costs have gone up by $5.525 billion.

      In any case, NPOESS has incurred a Nunn-McCurdy breach, Northrop Grumman officials acknowledged.

      The Nunn-McCurdy breach by NPOESS, according to the DOD, was due mainly to "technical issues arising during the engineering and manufacturing development portion of the program." DOD cited technical changes in certain sensors and in spacecraft design development efforts.

      Northrop Grumman officials specifically pointed to the suite of sensors that the NPOESS satellites would carry: sensors not provided by Northrop Grumman but by other suppliers.

      It was largely due to the need for changes in these sensors that drove up the cost of the program to such a significant degree, according to Northrop Grumman officials.

      The sensor suppliers already had been chosen by the time Northrop Grumman became the prime contractor, one Northrop Grumman official said. "We looked at the sensors" and saw that they needed changes in design, the official said.

      Changes in the sensors — and related cost overruns – aside, NPOESS will wind up performing essential information-gathering services for its several agency constitutents, according to Livanos.

      Its combination of more than a dozen sensors will enable the NPOESS satellite constellation to track the planet’s weather patterns in great detail, down to distinguishing between moisture and dust, according to Livanos.

      That kind of information is highly useful from a defense perspective, Livanos said.

      For instance, the NPOESS satellites will be able to read the velocity of wind along the surface of oceans, he said. This is a factor in how fast ships can move, and, consequently, a point of consideration when trying to calculate how long it will take a ship to arrive at a certain point, for example, Livanos said. In such a case, NPOESS "enables the docking process to be more efficient."

      That information, logically enough, could be of interest to the Navy.

      For another example perhaps more of interest to the Army, the satellites will be able to acquire detailed data about humidity levels on the ground, Livanos said. That humidity affects the quality of the soil and therefore could affect the degree of difficulty soldiers would face in walking on it, he noted. In other words, the satellite data could help determine how fast or how far troops reasonably could be expected to march.

      In an example possibly of interest to the Air Force, Livanos noted that the NPOESS satellites will be capable of picking up contrails that can indicate whether an aircraft has been flying in a given vicinity.

      NPOESS also "enhances the latency" of the nation’s weather-tracking satellite capabilities, Livanos said: in other words, he said, it will provide weather information faster.

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