Landsat 9 Remains on Schedule for Late 2021 Launch

Landsat 9 Operational Land Imager 2 (Credit: Ball Aerospace)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

If all goes well, an Atlas V booster will lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in November 2021 with the newest satellite in the U.S. government’s almost half century old Landsat Earth observation program.

The Landsat 9 remains on schedule and within its $885 million budget despite prime contractor Northrop Grumman experiencing ongoing delays in spacecraft electronics fabrication, flight software and systems integration, according to a new assessment from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“According to the contractor, additional staff that have prior space flight experience have been assigned to the project and received several weeks of project unique training,” the GAO assessment stated. “The contractor also reported that this additional staff allowed for second shift capability and working extended shifts and weekends.

“To further mitigate schedule risk associated with the staffing concerns, Landsat 9 augmented contractor staff with an onsite presence and utilized expertise from other contractors for targeted technical support,” the report added.

NASA is overseeing the building and launch of Landsat 9. The U.S. Geological Survey will process, archive and distribute the imagery.

The program will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the launch of Landsat 1 satellite in July 2022.

GAO’s assessment of the Landsat 9 project follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

Landsat 9

Landsat 9 is the next satellite in the Landsat-series program, which for over 40 years has provided a continuous space-based record of land surface observations to study, predict, and understand the consequences of land surface dynamics, such as deforestation.

The program is a collaborative effort between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. The Landsat data archive constitutes the longest continuous moderate-resolution record of the global land surface as viewed from space and is used by many fields, such as agriculture, mapping, forestry, and geology.

Project Summary

The Landsat 9 project is reevaluating its schedule to set a new internal launch readiness date, but project officials expect this date will still be before its November 2021 baseline date. The project was working to an earlier December 2020 date due to direction in the Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016.

NASA officials told us that the schedule has slipped; however, cost and schedule baselines are not threatened because the project has sufficient reserves. Landsat 9 officials attribute recent delays to the spacecraft contractor’s performance and stated that delays have been compounded by conflicts with testing facilities and equipment.

Landsat 9 officials are coordinating with the contractor’s executive management to mitigate these issues. Landsat 9’s two primary instruments have both been delivered to the contractor and mechanically installed on the spacecraft.

Cost and Schedule Status

The Landsat 9 project is reevaluating its schedule to set a new internal launch readiness date, but project officials expect this date will still be before its November 2021 baseline date. The project was working to an earlier December 2020 date due to direction in the Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016.

Credit: GAO

NASA officials told us that the schedule has slipped, in part as the result of ongoing issues with the spacecraft contractor. Officials said despite this delay, their cost and schedule baselines are not threatened because the project has sufficient reserves. For example, as of September 2019, the project was maintaining cost reserves over 50 percent, which is more than double the project’s planned level.

Technology

Both of Landsat 9’s primary instruments—the Operational Land Imager 2 (OLI-2) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2 (TIRS-2)—have been delivered to the spacecraft contractor, successfully completed functional testing, and are mechanically installed on the spacecraft. As of January 2020, the project was working toward its system integration review scheduled for March 2020.

Contractor

The project is experiencing ongoing delays in spacecraft electronics fabrication, flight software, and simulators that affect system integration. Landsat 9 officials attribute these recent delays to issues with the spacecraft contractor’s performance.

The project has met with contractor management to discuss its performance, including concerns about the number and experience of staff available to complete remaining work.

According to the contractor, additional staff that have prior space flight experience have been assigned to the project and received several weeks of project unique training. The contractor also reported that this additional staff allowed for second shift capability and working extended shifts and weekends.

To further mitigate schedule risk associated with the staffing concerns, Landsat 9 augmented contractor staff with an onsite presence and utilized expertise from other contractors for targeted technical support.

The project has also identified that recent delays have been compounded by conflicts with testing facilities and equipment. Testing equipment was allotted to another project, and Landsat 9 plans to complete environmental testing once the equipment is returned.

According to the spacecraft contractor, Landsat 9 and the other project did not originally have any scheduling conflicts; however, both projects experienced part availability delays which contributed to the conflict.

The contractor stated it used a multi-factor process for resolving schedule conflicts and the other project got priority use of testing facilities due to its closer launch date, among other factors.

In addition to this schedule conflict, the project has identified that a second project may require the use of environmental testing facilities at the same time as Landsat 9.

Project officials are coordinating with spacecraft contractor management to assess potential facility conflicts early; however, there is risk that additional schedule erosion could occur if the equipment return from the first project is delayed or if this second facility conflict materializes.