The U.S. Air Force is embarking on an accelerated analysis of alternatives for a future defense weather satellite constellation after initiating the termination of Northrop Grumman’s Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS) contract.

The Air Force announced Jan. 24 that it was issuing a stop-work order to Northrop in accordance with direction from the fiscal 2012 Defense Authorization and spending acts. Though the Pentagon requested $444.9 billion for research and development for DWSS in fiscal 2012, lawmakers provided only $43 million and directed that it be used for shutting down the contract.

Northrop received the $427 million contract last spring after a protracted negotiation between the Pentagon, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on how to proceed after breaking apart a decade-long joint effort to combine civil and military weather satellite requirements into a single program. That effort, the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Satellite System (Npoess), collapsed due to bureaucratic paralysis and interagency disagreements that left both military and civil customers without a next-generation weather satellite plan. The termination of DWSS is the latest failure of the government to craft a cohesive plan to provide space-based weather and climate data.

The Pentagon embarked upon renegotiating the Npoess contract, which had been given to Northrop Grumman, for DWSS. Several sensors planned for Npoess were shifted to NASA and NOAA’s program—the Joint Polar Satellite System—leaving three key sensors required by the Pentagon and slated for placement on DWSS.

They are the Raytheon Visible Imager Radiometer Suite (Viirs), a microwave sensor (the Microwave Imager Sounder, or MIS, being developed by the Naval Research Laboratory) to augment the visible side, and a space weather sensor (the Space Environmental Monitor, or SEM, being developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory), according to officials from the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles, which manages DWSS. However, recent problems with Viirs, which has delayed activation of the Npoess Preparatory Project pathfinder satellite, could prompt the service to seek another option for that data collection.

The DWSS contract is likely terminated for convenience, not cause, industry officials say. This means that Northrop will have more latitude in negotiating the termination costs. The company received its stop-work notice Jan. 17.

“There were no performance issues cited by the Air Force” on the contract, says Jim Hart, a Northrop spokesman. DWSS supports roughly 170 jobs at Northrop Grumman. “We are doing everything we can to find other assignment for the affected employees,” Hart notes. “There could be some layoffs.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force says it will proceed with the “pre-acquisition” work to re-validate requirements for a next-generation weather satellite system. This will include an analysis of alternatives.

“We need to make sure that the requirements we have are still valid or if they are not valid anymore, is there another approach we can use to make sure we can still satisfy the operational requirements that the defense department has,” says the SMC official.

One thorny issue, however, is avoiding a potential gap in coverage for weather data collection. The first DWSS satellite was slated to launch in 2018, a tight schedule even without starting a new program.

However, Air Force officials say they have some flexibility owing to the unexpected longevity of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft in orbit now. Two DMSP satellites—Nos. 19 and 20—remain on the ground awaiting launch. They were built years ago, however, and are undergoing life-extension programs. “Previously we had taken off all of the sensors. We essentially refurbished any of the components that . . . might get aged sitting in the barn,” the SMC official says. “The satellite was essentially rebuilt . . . From an engineering perspective, the satellite has been looked at over and over again with a fine-tooth comb.”

Industry officials warn, however, that launching older satellites increases a risk of an unexpected failure in orbit and, potentially, exposing the Pentagon to a gap in data collection.