Report Urges Reinvestment in Earth Observation Missions

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon(D-Tenn.) applauded a new National Academy of Sciences report urging the U.S.government to fund 17 Earth-observing satellite missions between 2010 and 2020in order to rebuild the nation's aging network of environmental spacecraft.

Without the reinvestment, the report warns, the number of U.S.satellites monitoring the Earth's climate could drop from 29 today to seven by2017.

Gordon said the findings should come as no surprise toanyone who has paid attention to the budget cuts NASA's Earth science programhas sustained since 2000 and the disruption on National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration (NOAA) observation programs caused by cost overruns on thenation's next-generation weather satellite systems.

Gordon said his committee would be "watching closely" to seewhether the 2008 budget request the White House puts forward in February isconsistent with the recommendations in the report, "Earth Science andApplications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,"a 10-year-plan for U.S. Earth science missions known as a decadal survey, whichcan be found here. The first-of-its-kindassessment was released by the National Academy of Sciences Jan. 15 at theAmerican Meteorological Society's annual meeting in San Antonio.

"The decadal survey recommends a path forward that restoresU.S. leadership in Earth science and avoids potential collapse of our system ofEarth science satellites," said Richard Anthes, co-chairman of thetwo-year-study and newly elected president of the American MeteorologicalSociety.

Anthes told reporters Jan. 15 that NASA's investment inEarth science, measured in constant dollars, has dropped from $2 billion in2002 to $1.5 billion today.

To fund the missions proposed in the report, NASA would haveto go back to spending $2 billion a year on Earth science while NOAA would haveto maintain a steady $1 billion annual investment in satellites and instrumentsthat monitor Earth's climate.

Two of the proposed missions identified in the report wouldbe undertaken by NOAA. The remaining 15 would be NASA's responsibility.

Half of the proposed missions, the report estimates, couldbe accomplished for $300 million or less with none costing more than $800million in today's dollars.

The first of the new missions proposed that is not alreadyin NASA's or NOAA's pipeline is DESDynI, which stands for Deformation, EcosystemStructure and Dynamics of Ice. Anthes said DESDynI would cost an estimated $700million and be designed to fly a Ka-band interferometric synthetic apertureradar instrument and laser altimeter in a sun-synchronous low Earth orbit.

Another early mission, the Climate Absolute Radiance andRefractivity Observatory, or Clarreo, would be a joint effort of NASA and NOAA,with NASA covering the bulk of the project's $265 million price tag.

The most expensive of the proposed missions is the ACE(Aerosol/Clouds/Ecosystem) mission. According to the National Academy ofSciences report, the satellite for that $800 million mission would be equippedwith four instruments. The launch would take place between 2013 and 2016 tohelp reduce uncertainties in predictions about global climate change.

NASA made a robust investment in environmental satellites inthe 1990s, building an Earth Observing System that was completed in 2004 withthe launch of the multiple-instrument Aura satellite. The three satellites inthe system were complemented by the launch of several smaller, more focusedsatellites, including Cloudsat and Calipso, which launched as a pair in early2006.

Thanks to that robust investment -- as well as launch delaysand satellites lasting longer than expected -- the United States has anunprecedented number of environmental spacecraft and instruments currently inorbit: 29 operating satellites and 122 instruments, according to the report.

But "a great fraction" of those Earth-observationcapabilities are expected to go dark over the next few years, Anthes said. Thereport forecasts a 40 percent decline in the number of working sensors andinstruments on orbit "given that most satellites in NASA's current fleet arewell past their nominal lifetimes."

NASA has a small number of new missions in development,including the single-instrument Orbiting Carbon Observatory, the Ocean SurfaceTopography Mission, and a greenhouse gas-monitoring satellite dubbed Glory. Allthree are slated to launch in 2008, according to NASA Goddard Space FlightCenter's Earth Observing System Web site.

NASA also has in development for a 2009 or 2010 launch amulti-instrument satellite designed to serve as a bridge between the firstround of Earth Observing System missions and the launch of the NationalPolar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) next decade.NASA Administrator Mike Griffin testified before the House Science andTechnology Committee last June that the NPOESS Preparatory Mission would help ensurethe continuous collection of certain Earth Observing Systems measurements andprovide flight validation of some key NPOESS sensors, including thebehind-schedule Visible/Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite.

The NPOESS program was restructured in July when itsprojected cost soared from $6.8 billion to more than $11 billion. As part ofthe restructuring, several key climate, environmental and weather observationcapabilities important to scientists were dropped from NPOESS. The sensors thatare still part of the NPOESS plan, the report says, "are generally less capablethan their Earth Observing System counterparts."

The report recommends adding capabilities back to NPOESS orfinding a way to obtain them by other means. In addition to laying out a phasedsequence of new missions from 2010 to 2020, the report urges NASA to take anumber of more immediate steps, among them committing to launching a Landsat 7no later than 2011 and launching the long-planned Global PrecipitationMeasurement mission not later than 2012.

The report also calls for NASA to complete theGeosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer and find a ride for it.The instrument was being built for an experimental weather satellite calledEarth Observer-3, a satellite that lost its U.S. Air Force-sponsored launchreservation amid budget uncertainties and subsequently was canceled.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.