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NPP Kicks Off New Earth Observation Era

HOUSTON — The U.S. is preparing to launch a developmental spacecraft designed to preview a long-delayed network of satellites for weather forecasting, storm tracking and climate-change studies.

The satellite was developed as a pathfinder for the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (Npoess) program, an effort to marry civil and military weather satellite requirements into a single system. After years of delay and ballooning cost estimates, that program was scrapped in 2010 and split once again into separate civil and military efforts, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Air Force.

Launch of the $1.5 billion Npoess Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., on board a Delta II rocket is scheduled for Oct. 27 at 2:48 a.m. PDT (5:48 a.m. EDT). The current schedule represents a two-day slip in the original launch campaign to address a small hydraulic system leak and a damaged flexible exhaust system collar.

NPP carries five Earth-observing instruments, each destined for operational assignments crucial to the future of NOAA’s rechristened Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) network, into a Sun-synchronous orbit with a 512-mi. altitude. The spacecraft’s life is estimated at five years, although Ken Schwer, NPP project manager from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, warns that the operational lives of the developmental instruments may vary from that figure.

Though intended to provide the advanced sensor suite with a trial period, NPP is also expected to serve as a single-platform bridge between NASA’s aging Earth Observing System spacecraft Terra, Aqua and Aura — launched, respectively in 1999, 2002 and 2004 — and the JPSS for continuous profiles of the atmosphere, clouds, oceans, ice cover and vegetation. Initial NPP instrument calibration could take as long as six months.

“The timing of this NPP launch could hardly be more appropriate,” said Louis Uccellini, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction, during an Oct. 12 NASA news briefing. In the U.S. alone, this year has already been marked by 10 major weather events that have produced at least $1 billion in damage each, he notes.

“With NPP we expect to improve and extend our forecast skills out to five to seven days in advance for hurricanes and other extreme weather events,” Uccellini says. “We expect the advanced instruments on NPP to become a foundation for the global observing system that will be absolutely essential for NOAA’s prediction models.”

NPP observations will also improve NOAA’s ability to track ash plumes from volcanic eruptions to enhance aviation safety; monitor the potential for drought and wild fires; measure variations in arctic sea ice; and detect harmful algae blooms and other hazards to fisheries and fragile ocean/sea coast systems, Uccellini says.

The 2010 restructuring preserved the Air Force, NOAA and NASA partnership, especially in shared ground systems, but split procurement responsibilities between the JPSS and the Air Force’s Defense Weather Satellite System.