Landsat Gapfiller Satellite Left Out of 2006 Budget Request

The 2006 White House budget request spreads more than $90 million across three agencies to pay for operation of the Landsat satellites and development of a Landsat instrument that will be placed on a future U.S. government weather satellite.

However, no money is designated in the 2006 budget request for a proposed free-flying satellite that would have served to blunt the impact of any potential gap between the end of current satellite operations and the launch of the new spacecraft, agency officials said.

Earth observation data has been collected by Landsat satellites since 1972, and current U.S. policy commits the government to ensuring the continuous collection of Landsat data. Government officials are confident that the two spacecraft now operating in orbit, despite suffering serious problems, will continue to operate until the launch of the new instrument on a new polar orbiting satellite in late 2009.

NASA, which builds the Landsat satellites, has $54.3 million in its 2006 request for the Landsat Data Continuity Mission. The program originally was intended to commercialize the collection of the Earth observation data, but that effort was scrapped by NASA in September 2003.

The program now is focused on the development of the Operational Land Imager, an instrument that will be placed aboard the U.S. National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) satellites. The White House formally approved a plan in August to add land observation to the suite of measurements to be collected by the new series of weather satellites, which are being developed jointly by the U.S. Air Force and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NASA plans to request a further $198.4 million through 2010 to support imager development, agency spokeswoman Gretchen Cook-Anderson said. Those funds will not be used for a so-called gap-filler satellite that some government officials had hoped to launch by early 2008.

Ghassem Asrar, NASA's deputy associate administrator for science, has said previously that the funding originally intended for the effort to commercialize Landsat data would be used for the gap-filler mission. Sources had estimated that a Gapfiller mission would cost around $300 million, including the launch.

"Because of the extra funding involved and the belief that it would detract from the preferred solution, there is not much further discussion about" the free-flying satellite," said Chip Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, which is responsible for collecting and disseminating Landsat data. ". There isn't a credible approach that would not require significant additional funds, and given the budget situation, getting funds of that magnitude is not likely."

John Cunningham, NPOESS system program director at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said the gapfiller satellite was a victim of program schedule and cost.

"We looked at what was really achievable with a free-flyer schedule-wise and performance-wise and cost-wise and what was achievable with NPOESS," Cunningham said. "One of the goals we were told the administration had was to recognize that Landsat is really important and to make it part of an operational program so there isn't a crisis every four or five years. NPOESS, despite some technical problems, is a solid program."

NOAA received $11 million to begin work on integrating the sensor into the weather satellite. The money will be used to support the acquisition of a pair of Operational Land Imagers by NASA and developing the command and control and telemetry software, Cunningham said. NOAA and NASA officials met Feb. 10 to refine the request for proposals for the instrument and set deadlines, he said.

NOAA has developed its budget requests for instrument integration through the scheduled 2009 launch, but Cunningham would not divulge the figure. "We are getting from NASA the details of what they need to support the instrument acquisition," he said. "We need those details before we publish final numbers."

Placing the imager onto the NPOESS satellites did raise some technical concerns among the user community, but NPOESS officials are confident they have worked out any potential problems, Cunningham said. The biggest concern among users is that the NPOESS spacecraft vibrates more than Landsat satellites and the movement would interfere with data collection, he said.

"Spacecraft jitter is slowly being put to bed as an issue," Cunningham said. "As the NPOESS design gets more finalized, the spacecraft will be far more stable than specifications say it has to be. Northrop Grumman also has changed the attitude control information rate so they can control the spacecraft more tightly."

NASA also is studying more ways to further isolate the Operational Land Imager from the spacecraft vibrations, Cunningham said.

The Geological Survey received $7.5 million to begin upgrading its ground systems to work with the next-generation imager, Groat said. The money is included in a $33 million request for the survey's land remote sensing program, he said.

The Geological Survey will request $10 million for the work in both 2007 and 2008, Groat said. The figure then drops down to between $4 million and $5 million per year for operations, he said.

The Geological Survey's 2006 budget request also included a $12 million increase to make up for shortfalls in the operating budget for, Landsat 7, the current spacecraft.

The USGS depends on data sales to help fund operations of both Landsat 7 and the 20-year-old Landsat 5 spacecraft, which cost about $21 million a year to operate. However, data sales have declined since Landsat 7, suffered a permanent sensor glitch in May 2003 that has degraded the quality of its data.

The $12 million request includes a one-time $6 million increase that will be used to cover the 2005 shortfall, Groat said. The 2005 money will be used to reimburse other programs that had money taken from them to support Landsat operations, he said.

The other $6 million will cover the expected shortfall in 2006, and the Geological Survey expects to have that $6 million figure in future budgets to cover Landsat operations until the NPOESS launch, Groat said. "We are pleased to see that the problem has been resolved," he said. "We were getting near the point where we would have had to make a choice on whether to operate the satellite."

The shortfall from data sales is not expected to grow larger than $6 million per year, and the may even shrink as the Geological Survey improves its methods for creating products from the damaged data and customers become more comfortable with the imagery, Groat said.

While the Landsat 7 camera problem cannot be repaired, Groat said he is confident the spacecraft which was launched in 1999, will continue to operate until the NPOESS launch.

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