NASA has reversed its controversial decision to abandon a storm-monitoring satellite and will extend its mission through the end of 2004, so that it can provide data during the upcoming hurricane season.
After appeals from scientists and lawmakers, the space agency announced late Thursday that it was extending the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. It said the extension was being undertaken jointly with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, NASA's partner in the TRMM effort, "in light of a recent request from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."
The TRMM satellite was launched in 1997 and was originally designed to fulfill a three-year mission. During that primary mission, and a four-year extension, TRMM has yielded significant scientific research data on severe weather, and has helped weather experts monitor and predict rainfall and storms. The satellite lets weather researchers make the "equivalent of a CAT scan of hurricanes," NASA said.
Doom had been planned
In mid-July, NASA and the Japanese space agency, known as JAXA, quietly decided to decommission the satellite and arrange for a controlled deorbit that would result in the spacecraft's destruction. As word of the decision spread, researchers reacted with protests. They pointed out that the $700 million satellite was still in good working order, and that the mission could be extended at an annual cost of $28 million to $36 million.
Initially, NASA officials said that money could be better-spent on preparation for the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, TRMM's successor, which is due for launch in the 2010-2011 time frame. But influential lawmakers including Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the New York Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, joined the campaign for an extension.
In Thursday's announcement, Ghassem Asrar, deputy associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said NASA and JAXA "decided to extend TRMM through this year's hurricane season in our effort to aid NOAA in capturing another full season of storm data."
"The United States is a leader in Earth remote sensing, and NASA is proud of our role in building that leadership," Asrar said. "Our work in partnership with NOAA and international partners such as JAXA is an important part of the world's scientific research on global precipitation and weather. TRMM has been a valuable part of that legacy, and we look to our follow-on missions to continue to reap great public benefit."
The director of NOAA's National Weather Service, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. David Johnson, was quoted as saying "TRMM has proven helpful in complementing the other satellite data" used by the weather service.
Workshop planned on mission's future
NASA said it had joined with NOAA in asking the National Academy of Sciences to convene a workshop next month to provide advice on the best use of TRMM's remaining spacecraft life; the overall risks and benefits of the mission extension options; the advisability of transfer of operational responsibility for TRMM to NOAA; any requirement for a follow-on operational satellite to provide comparable TRMM data; and optimal use of the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission.
Asrar stressed that NASA was still committed to planning "a safe, controlled re-entry and deorbit of the spacecraft."