NOAA chief slams contractors for satellite delays

The head of the nation's lead climatic research agency sharply criticized Northrop Grumman and Raytheon for delays in fixing problems with a key weather sensor planned for use on a satellite system that monitors worldwide environmental conditions.

Conrad Lautenbacher, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, told a meeting this week of the tri-agency executive committee for the $12.5 billion National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System that he was "extremely disappointed" in the pace of work by Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to resolve problems with an important weather instrument on the system.

The instrument, called the Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite, is designed to collect atmospheric data, including information on clouds and sea surface temperature.

"The contractor's lack of progress on fixing several technical issues is unacceptable and has resulted in significant delays to the original VIIRS planned delivery," Lautenbacher said

NOAA and the Defense Department are jointly developing the system in partnership with NASA.

In April 2007, the Government Accountability Office reported that the NPOESS program had experienced "significant difficulties" with the VIIRS sensor, including image quality and reliability during testing. The GAO also reported that due to an increase in costs, the number of satellites had been reduced from six to four, with the launch of the first pushed back from 2009 to 2013.

The sensor is slated to first go into orbit on a NASA test satellite called the NPOESS Preparatory Project, whose launch date has slipped from 2006 to 2010. NOAA said the current problems would further delay VIIRS, but did not say by how much.

Dave Desilets, a spokesman for Raytheon, which is developing the sensor as a subcontractor to Northrop Grumman, the prime NPOESS contractor, said the delays have been caused by a cryoradiator designed to cool the electronics to minus 315 degrees. Desilets said Raytheon has made modifications to the cryoradiator "to increase its robustness [and] to ensure it could better withstand the launch environment. We were able to optimize the design as a result of this work, and the cryoradiator has successfully passed the scheduled vibration environmental tests."

Sally Koris, a spokeswoman for Northrop Grumman, said her company is working with NOAA to insure the satellite program remains on cost and schedule, and that the spacecraft are on schedule and within budget.

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