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Orbital Trots Out Finished LDCM Spacecraft Ahead of Shipment to Launch Site

LDCM spacecraft during testing at Orbital Sciences' Gilbert, Ariz., satellite manufacturing facility. Credit: Orbital Sciences photo

WASHINGTON — Orbital Sciences Corp. has finished building and testing the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) satellite, which after nearly 15 years of planning and replanning must clear only one more review before being shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., where it is scheduled to launch Feb. 11.

“LDCM is fully assembled and fully qualified,” Daren Iverson, LDCM program manager for Dulles, Va.-based Orbital, said in a Dec. 13 phone interview.

LDCM was built at a Gilbert, Ariz., facility Orbital acquired in 2010 when it bought General Dynamics’ satellite business and will be shipped to Vandenberg for integration with its United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launcher “in the next couple of weeks,” Iverson said. Shipment is predicated on a successful review by NASA, which will happen “pretty soon,” Iverson said Dec. 13.

LDCM will be renamed Landsat 8 once it is in orbit. Landsat 7 and Landsat 5 are still operating, but neither satellite — launched in 1999 and 1984, respectively — is working at full capacity. The U.S. Geological Survey, which will operate Landsat 8, is responsible for distributing and archiving Landsat data; NASA has built the satellites for much of the Landsat program’s 40-year history.

Before awarding a $116 million fixed-price contract for the LDCM spacecraft to General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, NASA unsuccessfully attempted to commercialize the eighth Landsat mission. When that fell through, the White House considered adding land-imaging sensors to the next generation of U.S. polar-orbiting weather satellites. That plan was scrapped in favor of the satellite Orbital unveiled Dec. 13 in Gilbert.

LDCM has two main instruments: a $188 million medium-resolution Operational Land Imager, built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., and the $160 million Thermal Infrared Sensor, which was built at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in March that the final tab for LDCM will top $930 million by the time it completes its first five years of operations.

Anticipating a surge in demand for small classified satellites, Orbital acquired General Dynamics’ Gilbert plant in 2010 for $55 million. With the plant, and its security-cleared work force, came the money-losing LDCM contract. Orbital said in 2010 it expected to lose about $22.8 million on the project.

The companies are now embroiled in a lawsuit over the price of the 2010 sale. The suit is expected to go to trial in 2013.

With LDCM work complete, Gilbert engineers will transition to work on two NASA climate satellites — ICESat-2 and Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 — and classified projects, Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said Dec. 13.

Orbital’s headcount on LDCM maxed out at 100 full-time employees, Iverson said. Fewer than 10 employees will provide support services to NASA through 2018, the scheduled end of LDCM’s mission.

ICESat-2’s launch date is under review after a plan to co-manifest it with an Air Force weather satellite in 2016 fell through earlier this year. Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 — a duplicate of a satellite destroyed in a 2009 Orbital Sciences Taurus XL launch failure — is to launch July 1, 2014, aboard a Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg.

Orbital also plans to compete for work on small NASA astrophysics missions and on the next-generation civil polar-orbiting weather satellite program, said Mike Miller, Orbital’s senior vice president for science and environmental satellite programs.

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