by Douglas Messier
An U.S.-Indian synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite is that rarest of NASA’s projects: it is currently on schedule and under budget.
Whether it stays that way depends upon what happens between now and its planned launch aboard an Indian booster in September 2022.
The NASA Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) spacecraft is designed to address questions related to climate change, Earth’s carbon cycle, and natural hazards such as volcanoes and earthquakes.
A review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the project is running under its $866.9 million budget, although there are asterisks attached to that conclusion.
“The project’s cost estimate has decreased by $20.6 million below the cost baseline because of a decision by NASA to reduce the project’s cost reserves,” the assessment found. “Since that decision, the project has had to use reserves to address technical problems and delayed deliveries, resulting in the project having no cost reserves remaining for fiscal year 2020.
“Further, with respect to the current cost estimate, NASA is no longer accounting for $30 million of costs associated with data collection efforts identified by an interagency working group in NISAR’s cost estimate,” the document added.
The project used up five months of its schedule reserve because ISRO delivered the S-band radar late. Four months of schedule reserve remain for a launch in September 2022.
The GAO’s assessment follows.
NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees
Government Accountability Office
NASA-Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – Synthetic Aperture Radar
The NASA Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) – Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) is a joint project between NASA and ISRO that will study the solid Earth, ice masses, and ecosystems. It aims to address questions related to global environmental change, Earth’s carbon cycle, and natural hazards, such as earthquakes and volcanoes.
The project will include the first dual frequency synthetic aperture radar instrument, which will use advanced radar imaging to construct large-scale data sets of the Earth’s movements. NISAR represents the first major aerospace science partnership between NASA and ISRO.
The NISAR project is operating within its schedule baseline, but has consumed 5 months of schedule reserve resulting from a late delivery of the S-band radar from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
The project now has 4 months of schedule reserve remaining to its September 2022 launch date, but NASA senior leadership is planning a further review of the project’s schedule in early 2020.
The project’s cost estimate has decreased by $20.6 million below the cost baseline because of a decision by NASA to reduce the project’s cost reserves. Since that decision, the project has had to use reserves to address technical problems and delayed deliveries, resulting in the project having no cost reserves remaining for fiscal year 2020.
Further, with respect to the current cost estimate, NASA is no longer accounting for $30 million of costs associated with data collection efforts identified by an interagency working group in NISAR’s cost estimate.
NISAR will use a launch vehicle provided by ISRO, which must conduct an additional launch with a 4-meter fairing, among other criteria, before it is qualified for use.
Cost and Schedule Status
The NISAR project is operating within its schedule baseline established at its confirmation review in August 2016, but the project is reassessing its internal schedule dates as a result of late delivery of flight hardware from its international partner.
Delays with the S-band radar provided by ISRO have led the project to delay its internal launch readiness date by 5 months, from December 2021 to May 2022. As a result, the project now has 4 months of schedule reserve to its committed launch readiness date of September 2022.
The project has begun integrating the L-band radar but the ISRO delay affects the schedule for upcoming system integration tests, which will be the first time that the two radars are integrated and tested together. Senior leadership are expected to review an updated schedule in early 2020.
In November 2018, NASA reduced the project’s reserves by $20.6 million because it assessed that the project’s risk posture had improved and these reserves were no longer necessary.
We previously reported that NISAR was not meeting its cost baseline because of $30 million in cost growth associated with plans to collect additional soil moisture and natural hazard data of value to other federal agencies and the science community, which were identified by an interagency working group.
While NISAR is continuing to develop the capabilities to collect these additional data, NASA has subsequently made a decision to no longer include these costs as part of NISAR’s cost estimate because they were not part of the baseline plan.
Since that decision to reduce the reserves, the project’s cost reserves remain lower than planned levels because of the need to address technical problems and delayed deliveries. The project currently has no reserves remaining for fiscal year 2020.
The project is looking for ways to recover cost reserves going forward, including requesting additional reserves through NASA’s annual budget process, but the project is still assessing the full cost impact of new hardware issues that may further threaten cost reserves.
Technology and Design
NISAR is addressing two issues related to the radar reflector boom assembly—used to deploy the radar reflector when the spacecraft reaches orbit. First, the contractor testing the parts of the boom which support the antenna had a mishap that involved applying too much force to part of the hardware. As a result, some of the hardware will be delivered 7 weeks late to the project for testing.
Additionally, the project continues to track a risk that the boom could fail to deploy in orbit, which would compromise the mission. Since we reported last year, the project has taken steps to mitigate this risk including testing key components that help deploy the boom, such as hinges.
The project will use a launch vehicle that ISRO is providing—the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark II—which must meet five criteria from NASA and ISRO before it may be used. Two of the five criteria have already been met.
In addition, ISRO must conduct an additional launch with a 4-meter fairing, the nose cone of the rocket used to protect the payload. The remaining two criteria—a successful launch prior to NISAR’s launch and a successful 4-meter fairing launch prior to NISAR’s launch—are tied to launches prior to NISAR’s launch.