Nov. 27, 2007 at 7:45 PM ET
Landsat 7, the satellite behind the best orbital survey of Antarctica ever conducted, has documented other wonders around the world over the past eight years. You might even call it a Hubble Space Telescope for planet Earth, pointing downward at land and sea instead of upward at planets and stars.
More generally, a report prepared last year under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences said budget cuts were putting America's Earth-observing program at "substantial risk" of collapse.
To address those concerns, a multiagency team was formed by the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy to focus on the nation's satellite needs, said Ray Byrnes, liaison for satellite missions at the U.S. Geological Survey.
"Fortunately, they were able to release a plan in August of 2007 that called for long-term commitments by the U.S. to fly future satellites like Landsat," Byrnes told reporters today during a briefing at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
If the Earth-observing satellite system ever did start sinking, we'd lose out on more than pretty pictures: Satellites monitor natural phenomena that could have an impact on hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. Today's global web of satellites, for remote imaging as well as communications, is arguably the greatest legacy of the 50 years since Sputnik.
Looking on the bright side, NASA alone has 14 satellites keeping an eye on our planet from above. One of those satellites, the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, marks its 10th birthday today. And despite the worries voiced in the academy report, new eyes in the sky are continually being added - including the commercial WorldView 1 satellite (which just became fully operational this week) and the Italian-built COSMO-SkyMed constellation (with a satellite due for launch next week).
Here's just a taste of the satellite marvels you can find on the Web: