The National Research Council via the National Academies Press, released a report yesterday that summarized the state of environmental satellite monitoring: Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey
USA Today reports that: “The number and capability of weather satellites circling the planet “is beginning a rapid decline” and tight budgets have significantly delayed or eliminated missions to replace them, says a National Research Council analysis out Wednesday.” I located the report, and the plots they provided:
FIGURE S.1 Number of operating (2000-2011) and planned (2012-2020) NASA and NOAA Earth observing missions (left and instruments (right). Click for larger images.
It seems the interest in environmental monitoring from space isn’t a priority anymore, and is about to head down the hill as platforms and instruments die by attrition (AQUA’s AMSRE failure used for sea ice is a good example). Here’s the NRC summary of the whole report:
Understanding the complex, changing planet on which we live, how it supports life, and how human activities affect its ability to do so in the future is one of the greatest intellectual challenges facing humanity. It is also one of the most important challenges for society as it seeks to achieve prosperity, health, and sustainability.1
The 2007 National Research Council report Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond (referred to in this report as the “2007 decadal survey” or “2007 survey”) called for a renewal of the national commitment to a program of Earth observations in which attention to securing practical benefits for humankind plays an equal role with the quest to acquire new knowledge about the Earth system.2 The decadal survey recommended a balanced interdisciplinary program that would observe the atmosphere, oceans, terrestrial biosphere, and solid Earth and the interactions between these Earth system components to advance understanding of how the system functions for the benefit of both science and society.
NASA responded positively to the decadal survey and its recommendations and began implementing most of them immediately after the survey’s release. Although its budgets have never risen to the levels assumed in the survey, NASA’s Earth Science Division (ESD) has made major investments toward the missions recommended by the survey and has realized important technological and scientific progress as a result. Several of the survey missions have made significant advances, and operations and applications end users are better integrated into the mission teams. The new Earth Venture competitive
solicitation program has initiated five airborne missions and is currently reviewing proposals submitted in response to an orbital stand-alone mission solicitation. At the same time, the Earth sciences have advanced significantly because of existing observational capabilities and the fruit of past investments, along with advances in data and information systems, computer science, and enabling technologies. Three missions already in development prior to the decadal survey—the Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM), Aquarius, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP)3—have since been successfully launched and promise significant benefits to research and applications. The potential for the science community to make use of space-based data for research and applications has never been greater.
Finding: NASA responded favorably and aggressively to the decadal survey, embracing its overall recommendations for Earth observations, missions, technology investments, and priorities for the underlying science. As a consequence, the science and applications communities have made significant progress over the past 5 years.
However, for several reasons, the Committee on Assessment of NASA’s Earth Science Program found that the survey vision is being realized at a far slower pace than was recommended.
NASA accepted and began implementing the survey’s recommendations, the required budget assumed by the survey was not achieved, greatly slowing implementation of the recommended program. Launch failures, delays, changes in scope, and cost estimate growth have further hampered the program. In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made significant reductions in scope to the nation’s future operational environmental satellite series, omitting observational capabilities assumed by the decadal survey to be part of NOAA’s future capability and failing to implement the three new missions recommended for NOAA implementation by the survey (the Operational GPS Radio Occultation Mission, the Extended Ocean Vector Winds Mission, and the NOAA portion of CLARREO).
Thus, despite recent and notable successes, such as the launches of OSTM, Aquarius, and Suomi NPP, the nation’s Earth observing capability from space is beginning to wane as older missions fail and are not replaced with sufficient cadence to prevent an overall net decline. The committee found that the number of NASA and NOAA Earth observing instruments in space is likely to decline to as little as 25 percent of the current number by 2020 (Figure S.1).4 This precipitous decline in the quantity of Earth science and applications observations from space undertaken by the United States reinforces the conclusion in the decadal survey and its predecessor, the 2005 interim report (NRC, 2005), which declared that the U.S. system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse. The committee found that a rapid decline in capability is now beginning and that the needs for both investment and careful stewardship of the U.S. Earth observations enterprise are more certain and more urgent now than they were 5 years ago.
Finding: The nation’s Earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability as longrunning missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or canceled.
The projected loss of observing capability could have significant adverse consequences for science and society. The loss of observations of key Earth system components and processes will weaken the ability to understand and forecast changes arising from interactions and feedbacks within the Earth system and limit the data and information available to users and decision makers. Consequences are likely to include slowing or even reversal of the steady gains in weather forecast accuracy over many years and degradation of the ability to assess and respond to natural hazards and to measure and understand changes in Earth’s climate and life support systems. The decrease in capability by 2020 will also have far-reaching consequences for the vigor and breadth of the nation’s space-observing industrial and academic base, endangering the pipeline of Earth science and aerospace engineering students and the health of the future workforce.
1 From National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 1. 2 National Research Council, Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to
Serve the Nation, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005.
3 On January 24, 2012, NASA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, launched on October 28, 2011, was renamed the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership in honor of the late Verner E. Suomi, a renowned meteorologist from the University of Wisconsin considered by many
to be “the father of satellite meteorology.” See http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/NPP/news/suomi.html.
I asked Dr. Julienne Stroeve of NSIDC about this “…is the DMSP program (which NSIDC ses) going to be affected as well?” and she replied:
DMSP shouldn’t be affected, but the US is quickly falling behind with our satellite missions. We are having to turn more and more to the Europeans and others for satellite data.