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March 09, 2006

Poking Out Our Own Eyes Politics  Science/Technology

AP reports that budget cuts are endangering the US fleet of remote-sensing satellites that monitor weather and the environment. Excerpts:

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 A. Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. "Every year that goes by without the system being addressed is a problem." [...]

Since [just last year], 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." [...]

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. [...]

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. [...]

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. [Emphasis added]

This is so dumb, so ignorant, so monumentally irresponsible, that it beggars belief. At a time when the Earth is going through changes that pose a significant threat to human welfare — maybe even human existence — we are voluntarily poking out our own eyes. Ground the space shuttle, if necessary. Better yet, take some money from the DOD. But for God's sake, if we ever needed this data, it's now.

Posted by Jonathan at March 9, 2006 05:29 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


Hmm, you don't think this is information that the administration doesn't want to know about? If we just close our eyes, global warming isn't happening. It is willful ignorance, ostrich behavor. All that science stuff just encourages the reality-based community, you know!

Posted by: ivieee at March 10, 2006 11:32 AM