Merged programs to boost satellite data

National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System

TRW Inc. late last month won a contract potentially worth $4.5 billion to build a national environmental satellite system that merges military and civilian programs at three federal agencies.

The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is aimed at improving short-term weather forecasting and long-term climate control. A mix of users worldwide, including forecasters, researchers and students, will benefit from the next-generation data.

The system will deliver "the best meteorological and space data to the world that has ever been received," said Capt. Dean Smehil, executive director of the system's program office. "This is the largest contract the Commerce Department has ever done [in] one lump sum."

Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Defense Department and NASA formed an NPOESS Integrated Program Office in 1994 after President Clinton united their missions to observe Earth from space.

"We're ready to take all those drawings and start to bend tin to make something real," Smehil said.

With the office's direction, TRW will now move the project forward.

The system, which will enable polar-orbiting, remote-sensing capability, is expected to save taxpayers about $1.6 billion during its lifetime as redundant satellite systems are eliminated.

"NPOESS is an extremely important program for the nation, because it will meet the combined polar-orbiting weather satellite requirements for civil, military and scientific purposes, providing more capability at a reduced overall cost," said Tim Hannemann, president and chief executive officer of TRW Space and Electronics.

TRW previously won one of two contracts to help devise the satellite system. Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space Operations took the other. The preliminary design and risk reduction effort lasted three years.

"This is one of the major milestones," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which monitors space and military programs.

As the prime contractor for this next phase, TRW will handle overall system design and development, system engineering and integration, acquisition of instruments, and assembly and testing of the spacecraft, according to a company news release.

Under a subcontract valued at $1 billion, teammate Raytheon Co. will supply the ground system, including command, control and communications, mission data processing, and system engineering support.

The Integrated Program Office plans to have the first satellite ready in 2008 and launched in April 2009. The program, which is funded by NOAA and the Air Force, is slated to continue through 2018.

"We are on schedule and within cost," Smehil said. "Trying to get budgets in line and in sync has been difficult. [But there has been] no show stopper."

The system hasn't progressed as fast as some predicted, however. "The program has certainly been moving along slower than one would have anticipated when convergence was announced in the '90s," Pike said. But "I think it had everything to do with the longevity of the legacy systems and not NPOESS."

NOAA has overall responsibility for the combined system and DOD for major acquisitions. NASA will facilitate the development of new technologies for use by the program.

"The cooperation [among] three major agencies in the federal government is unique," Smehil said.

That collaboration extends internationally as well. The program has partnered with the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites and the National Space Development Agency of Japan.

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A clearer view

President Clinton created the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) in 1994 to converge civilian and military programs into one next-generation system that improves data and reduces cost.

The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Defense Department and NASA contribute to the system.

The agencies manage the effort through the NPOESS Integrated Program Office. Its objectives are to:

* Provide a single national, polar-orbiting, remote-sensing capability to acquire, receive and disseminate global and regional environmental data.

* Achieve cost savings through the convergence of NOAA and DOD environmental satellite programs.

* Incorporate new technologies from NASA's Office of Earth Science Enterprise program.

* Encourage international cooperation.

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