Troubled Weather Satellite Program

Delays in critically needed polar instruments could affect all of U.S. environmental monitoring

5 min read

Cost overruns and project delays have led to a cloudy forecast for the United States’ new polar-orbiting weather satellites, which were originally supposed to start circling the North and South Poles in 2008 [see artist’s conception, ” Pole to Pole”]. The greatly upgraded satellites, to consist of a group of three with three replacements, are meant to beam back weather data that would enable scientists to better predict hurricanes such as Katrina and help the military plan sorties in the war on terror. But development of the satellites is far behind schedule, and their total estimated cost has ballooned from US $6.5 billion to more than $10 billion—an immense amount, considering that the whole annual budget for Earth observation from space is about $3 billion, with at least half of that going for satellite construction, operation, and maintenance.

This means, observes a member of a National Academy committee reviewing space-based earth science research, that the problems with the polar satellites are a major concern for the whole enterprise of monitoring Earth from outer space.

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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