IMAGE: NASA SATELLITE ROCKET LAUNCH
Master Sgt. Rodney Jones  /  U.S. Air Force via AP file
A Boeing Delta II rocket carries NASA's Aura satellite on July 15, 2004, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The satellite, on a $785 million mission to study Earth's atmosphere, is part of NASA's Earth Observing System, a program considered at risk due to budget constraints.
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updated 3/6/2006 8:18:05 AM ET 2006-03-06T13:18:05

Budget cuts and poor management may be jeopardizing the future of our eyes in orbit — America’s fleet of environmental satellites, vital tools for forecasting hurricanes, protecting water supplies and predicting global warming.

“The system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse,” said Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “Every year that goes by without the system being addressed is a problem.”

Anthes chairs a National Academy of Sciences committee that advises the federal government on developing and operating environmental satellites. In a report issued last year, the committee warned that “the vitality of Earth science and application programs has been placed at substantial risk by a rapidly shrinking budget.”

Since that report came out, NASA has chosen to cancel or mothball at least three planned satellites in an effort to save money. Cost overruns have delayed a new generation of weather satellites until at least 2010 and probably 2012, leading a Government Accountability Office official to label the enterprise “a program in crisis.”

Scientists warn that the consequences of neglecting Earth-observing satellites could have more than academic consequences. It is possible that when a big volcano starts rumbling in the Pacific Northwest, a swarm of tornadoes sweeps through Oklahoma or a massive hurricane bears down on New Orleans, the people in harm’s way — and those responsible for their safety — will have a lot less information than they’d like about the impending threat.

“We may be losing something here, something that is good for all of us,” said Francisco P.J. Valero, an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

Other budget priorities
NASA officials say that tight budgets tie their hands, forcing them to cut all but the most vital programs. The agency’s proposed 2007 budget request contains $2.2 billion for satellites that observe the Earth and sun, compared to $6.2 billion for operating the space shuttle and International Space Station and $4 billion for developing future missions to the moon and Mars.

“We simply cannot afford all of the missions that our scientific constituencies would like us to sponsor,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin told members of Congress when he testified before the House Science Committee Feb. 16.

Griffin is faced with the difficult task of balancing the space agency’s science and aeronautics programs against the cost of operating the space station and shuttle, while simultaneously planning the future of human space flight.

“I truly wish that it could be otherwise, but there is only so much money,” Griffin said in his congressional testimony. “We must set priorities.”

The space agency has said that many science programs that have had their budgets slashed or eliminated will be revived if the budgetary situation improves.

Shrinking satellites
Meanwhile, the list of delayed, downsized and canceled satellites is a long one:

  • NASA’s Earth Observing System was conceived in the 1980s as a 15-year program that would collect comprehensive data about the planet’s oceans, atmosphere and land surface. It was originally intended to send three generations of spacecraft into orbit at five-year intervals, but budget shortfalls limited the project to only one round of launches.
  • Landsat, a series of satellites that have provided detailed images of the ground surface for more than 30 years, is in danger of experiencing a gap in service. Landsat 7, launched in April 1999, is scheduled to be replaced by a next-generation satellite in 2011. But if the existing satellite fails before that date and NASA has not developed a contingency plan, scientists, land managers and others who depend on Landsat images could be out of luck.
  • The launch of a satellite designed to measure rainfall over the entire Earth, the Global Precipitation Measurement mission, has been pushed back to 2012. But the satellite it is designed to replace, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, can’t possibly last that long. That means there will be a period of several years when scientists have no access to the accurate global precipitation measurements that help them improve hurricane forecasts and predict the severity of droughts and flooding.
  • In December, scientists working on the Hydros mission received a letter canceling their program. They were developing a satellite that would measure soil moisture and differentiate between frozen and unfrozen ground, an increasingly important distinction since melting of the Arctic permafrost has accelerated over the past several decades. The satellite also would have improved drought and flood forecasting.
  • Last month Scripps’ Valero was notified that the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a project he has led for more than seven years, would be canceled. The spacecraft has already been built, but NASA is reluctant to spend the $60 million to $100 million it would cost to launch and operate it.

“It would be a tremendous return in science on the dollar,” Valero said.

The observatory would have provided valuable information about how clouds, snow cover, airborne dust and other phenomena affect the balance between the amount of sunlight Earth absorbs and the amount of heat energy it emits. And because it would have hovered between Earth and the sun at a distance of roughly a million miles, it would have been able to observe the entire sunlit surface of the planet constantly. Such observations could greatly enhance scientists’ understanding how much the planet has warmed in recent years and help them predict how much warmer it will get in the future.

Four- to seven-day forecasts at risk
Finally, a new generation of weather satellites being developed jointly by NASA, the Department of Defense and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has gone so far over budget that federal law requires a review of whether it is worth continuing. Even if the program does survive, the first spacecraft in the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System can’t be launched until at least 2010, and probably 2012.

The current generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites is critical to weather forecasting because it offers a complete picture of the planet every six-hours. That detailed coverage is especially important for developing four- to seven-day forecasts, because it gives meteorologists the ability to track weather systems as they evolve in both time and space.

Weather forecasts could be compromised if the launch of the final satellite from the previous generation of polar orbiters, scheduled for late 2007, fails. The chances of a satellite failing on launch are typically about 10 percent.

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