Thursday, June 7, 2007

Crisis in Earth Observation from Space

American Association for the Advancement of Science: The network of satellites upon which the United States and the world have relied for indispensable observations of Earth from space is in jeopardy. These observations are essential for weather forecasting, hurricane warning, management of agriculture and forestry, documenting and anticipating the impacts of global climate change, and much more.

Maintenance of an adequate constellation of Earth-observing satellites and the instruments they carry is now threatened by budget cuts and reallocations in the two federal agencies that share the primary responsibility for them, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The situation is already causing harm, and it will become rapidly worse unless the Congress and the Administration take prompt action to reverse the recent trends. A 400-page analysis of this issue was recently released by the National Research Council updating and augmenting other recent studies and commentaries.

The new NRC report finds that [T]he United States’ extraordinary foundation of global observations is at great risk. Between 2006 and the end of the decade, the number of operating missions will decrease dramatically and the number of operating sensors and instruments on NASA spacecraft, most of which are well past their nominal lifetimes, will decrease by some 40 percent.

It also concludes that the sensors planned for the next generation of U.S. Earthobserving satellites are “generally less capable” than their counterparts in the current, now rapidly diminishing generation.

These declines will result in major gaps in the continuity and quality of the data gathered about the Earth from space. As noted in the new NRC study and elsewhere, this trend of sharply diminished U.S. capacity in Earth observations from space has been the result not only of tightening constraints on NASA and NOAA budgets but also of an explicit redirection of NASA’s priorities away from Earth observation and toward missions to the Moon and Mars...

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