In a clean room at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California sits the next great hope of the United States’ Earth-monitoring program. About the size of a minibus, it is covered in gold foil, riddled with electrical wires, and very clean.
This $1.5-billion satellite is state-of-the-art, carrying five advanced instruments to measure everything from sea-surface temperature to atmospheric winds. NASA plans to launch the satellite in October, as the bridge between the current and next generation of operational environmental satellites.
In true bureaucratic form, its name is an acronym nested within an acronym: NPP, for NPOESS Preparatory Project — in which NPOESS stands for National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System, a project that no longer exists.
The “preparatory” part of NPP’s name signals that it was supposed to be a prototype, a chance to experiment with new technologies before having to