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Dec 15 2014

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GAO investigates DoD satellite storage

DoD will spend an estimated $206 million on satellite storage over the next five years. Pretty interesting article overall. Here are a couple of good quotes:

Storage generally has had a minimal impact on a satellite’s operational lifetime, according to DOD officials and the limited number of studies available regarding the effects. Satellites stored on the ground face risks, such as batteries being partially depleted and lubricants settling in rotating wheel assemblies.

According to department officials, DOD mitigates these risks when satellites are stored on the ground by performing maintenance and testing activities to ensure the satellite stays ready for launch. When stored on orbit—launched but not brought on-line for operations—the most significant risk is the harsh space environment.

According to officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), their satellites are generally built and launched immediately. NOAA acquires some weather satellites in block buys and generally stores them on orbit to enable NOAA to immediately respond to a capability gap caused by an on orbit satellite failure. In contrast, NRO stores some satellites on the ground as part of the planned production of multiple satellites.

I didn’t realize that NOAA stored their satellites on-orbit as a matter of practice, instead of on the ground. MUOS, for example, will launch their fifth satellite as an on-orbit spare, but also stored their second satellite on the ground for over a year because of a lack of operational radios compatible with it. The reason was that the MUOS program office didn’t want to burn precious fuel for station-keeping on orbit without radios to talk to the satellite, and launching it before there were would have decreased the effective lifetime of the satellite to the warfighter.

Another key quote:

Most of DOD’s current, major satellite acquisition programs are in the later stages of acquisition, with the initial satellites having been designed, produced, and launched into orbit while additional satellites of the same design are being produced. Several of the satellites now being produced will be placed in storage before being launched—either in facilities on the ground or on orbit in space.

Recent challenges, including a fiscal climate of reduced funds, have led DOD to consider efforts that could significantly change the way it acquires satellites, which may also impact how and when it stores satellites. As DOD considers such changes, it is important that DOD has sufficient insight into the acquisition costs— including storage of satellites—to minimize the government’s risk of paying contractors more than necessary.

We’ve talked about this around the water cooler — that it’s about time to start identifying requirements for the follow-on systems to the ones currently fielded so as to have their replacements ready to launch before the current systems start falling from the sky. I’d be very excited about significant change to the way DoD acquires satellites, but given how bureaucracies resist change, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.newspaceraces.com/2014/12/15/gao-investigates-dod-satellite-storage/

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