Budget Shortfalls, Launch Delays Could Be Nightmare For Future Of Earth Observation Capabilities
May 3, 2012

Budget Shortfalls, Launch Delays Could Be Nightmare For Future Of Earth Observation Capabilities

Weather forecasters rely heavily on satellites orbiting the Earth to track everything from record heat waves to dangerous tornado-producing storms, but it seems they are going to have a much tougher time in the future thanks to a whirlwind of budget shortfalls and launch failures keeping important satellites from flying, according to a new report from the National Research Council (NRC).

The number and capability of weather satellites in orbit is steadily declining, and their valuable replacements may not be flying anytime soon, the council said in their report, released Wednesday.

As key new missions are set back or cancelled, it is leaving meteorologists, climatologists and other experts in similar fields scratching their heads, wondering how they will be able to move forward if new satellites aren´t put into orbit to replace many of those that are ready to be decommissioned. The US earth observation network is in a very precarious position, more so than five years ago, the report said, cautioning that the nation´s satellites are beginning a rapid decline in capabilities.

“The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards,” said Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our ability to measure and understand changes in Earth´s climate and life support systems will also degrade.”

The number of in-orbit and planned Earth observation missions by NASA and NOAA is projected to drop from 23 this year to a faint 6 in 2020, according to the report. That means the number of instruments monitoring the Earth and its activities will decline from about 110 last year to fewer than 30 by the end of the decade.

“Right now, when society is asking us the hardest questions and the most meaningful questions, we're going to be even more challenged to answer them,” Stacy Boland, a senior systems engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and one of the report´s authors, told the Gannett Washington Bureau. “We´ll slowly become data-starved here.”

The NRC report comes five years after the council published “Earth Science and Applications From Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond,” a decade-long survey that generated consensus recommendations from the earth and environmental science community for a renewed program of earth observations.

When that analysis came out in 2007, eight earth observation satellites were expected to be launched into space by this year. Yet only three have made it so far. Of the remaining five, two failed, one was canceled, and the others have been delayed until sometime next year.

The new report found that, while NASA responded in a favorable and aggressive fashion to the council´s previous survey, they couldn´t meet their goals due to budget woes from the federal government. But also, the absence of a highly reliable and affordable medium-class launch capability is also a hindrance.

Continuing budget cuts will keep NASA´s earth science program grounded for the most part. Therefore, the NRC said NASA should focus their attention on two necessary actions: defining and implementing a cost-constrained approach to mission development, and identifying and empowering a cross-mission earth system science and engineering team to advise on the execution of decadal survey missions.

The report also reviewed the conditions of NOAA´s satellite earth observation network, which is tied to the success of NASA´s programs. Budget shortfalls and cost overruns in NOAA´s polar environmental satellite mission are a key issue in that agency´s slow progress.

An interagency framework, recommended in the decadal survey to assist NASA and NOAA in optimizing resources, has yet to be realized. With both agencies facing years of fiscal constraints, such a framework is more crucial than ever before, the report warned.

NASA´s and NOAA´s loss of capacity will have “profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards,” warned Hartman.