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U.S. Air Force eyes mixed approach for next weather satellite

The satellite program known as National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, in an undated photo. REUTERS/N
The satellite program known as National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, in an undated photo. REUTERS/N

By Andrea Shalal-Esa

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force will likely opt for a mixed approach for a next-generation weather satellite that includes smaller spacecraft, according to top Air Force officials.

The Air Force plans to finish a review of possible approaches for the satellite early this summer following the collapse of the previous program due to technical and cost issues.

"It will be a much smaller satellite. We will press for that for lots of reasons," General William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told a space conference hosted by the Space Foundation on Tuesday. He underscored the need for more affordable satellites given expected declines in U.S. military spending.

Lieutenant General John Hyten, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters after a speech at a space and cyber conference on Monday that the analysis of alternatives was going "extremely well" and should be done in coming months.

The review followed the 2010 collapse of a multibillion-dollar weather satellite program known as National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, or NPOESS, that was being built by Northrop Grumman Corp for the Air Force, NASA and the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The White House dismantled the NPOESS weather satellite program in 2010 after significant cost overruns and technical problems, arguing that it was far too complex to be efficient.

Northrop, Boeing Co, Lockheed Martin Corp, and smaller players like Harris Corp, Moog Inc, ITT Exelis Corp and Orbital Sciences Corp are keeping a close eye on how the Air Force decides to structure the follow-on weather satellite program.

With Pentagon spending due to decline from projected levels, many companies are exploring ways to meet the government's emerging need for a larger number of small satellites, and far fewer of the bigger and far more expensive satellites.

Hyten said the follow-on weather program would likely include a variety of options rather than relying on a single, highly complex and large-scale satellite packed full of a variety of different sensors as NPOESS had done.

The new approach, which Air Force officials call "disaggregation," is aimed at avoiding the problems that plagued NPOESS and nearly every major satellite program in recent years.

This approach could include partnerships with commercial satellite operators, hosted payloads on other satellites, pay-for-service contractors instead of procurement of satellites, and construction of smaller, less complex satellites that could be built and launched more quickly, and at lower cost.

The Air Force still has two more of the current weather satellites that were built by Lockheed, which recently upgraded the sensors on one of the two spacecraft, which is due to be launched over the next year. Lockheed is looking at possible additional upgrades before those satellites are launched.

Boeing on Monday announced it planned to build a family of smaller satellite prototypes that could be quickly and affordably manufactured and configured for specific missions.

It said one possible use might be the follow-on weather satellite program. The new line of Boeing Phantom Phoenix satellite ranges in size from 4 kilograms to 1,000 kilograms.

Moog has invested in PlanetIQ, a start-up company that aims to launch 12 small 75-kilogram satellites that would provide highly accurate and real-time temperature and other weather data. Instead of selling the satellites to the government, PlanetIQ plans to sell the data collected to the U.S. and other governments around the world.

ITT Exelis Chief Executive David Melcher told Reuters that his company, which builds payloads, or instruments, for a variety of satellites, including weather missions, was trying to position itself to participate in whatever follow-on weather satellite programs the Air Force decided to pursue.

(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Andrew Hay)

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