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Nation’s Earth Observation Program Needs a Boost, NRC Panel Cautions


NASA's Suomi NPP Earth observation mission took flight in October 2011. The five-year mission is testing advanced instrumentation for weather forecasting and climate change studies. Image Credit/NASA image

The nation’s NASA and NOAA administered Earth observation program is on shakey ground, the National Research Council, a Congressionally-chartered think tank, concluded in a report issued this week.

A 21-member panel of scientists and engineers assembled from the field by the NRC found the Earth observation enterprise responsible for developing weather satellites as well as monitoring climate change reeling from budget shortfalls, cost overruns and a lack of strategic direction.

The NRC applauded NASA for making due in difficult circumstances by extending existing missions and mounting airborne campaigns to fill in data gaps. Instead, it cast most of the blame on policymakers, Congress for the funding lapses and the White House Office of Science and Technology for poor policying making.

“The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards,” cautioned Dennis Hartmann, the University of Washington atmospheric scientist who chaired the 21-member panel that produced the 122 page NRC report, Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadel Survey.

 ”Our ability to measure and understand changes in the Earth’s climate and life support systems will also degrade,” Hartmann warned.

There were some notable exceptions to the critical overall tone of the findings, which serve as a midterm assessment of the NRC’s 2007 10-year roadmap for the nation’s Earth observing programs, a blueprint forged by experts in meteorology and climate science.

Prominent among them was NASA’s  National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project, of NPP, launched last October. The five-year Suoimi NPP satellite mission is serving as a test bed for the introduction of a range of  technically advanced sensors for weather observations as well as climate change measurements.

The mission is emerging from its own troubled development history to bridge a gap between NASA’s aging Earth Observing System and the Joint Polar Satellite System, a NOAA initiative for gathering climate as well as weather data.

Nonetheless, the panel’s findings are worrisome.

They predict drastic declines in the numbers of NASA/NOAA  Earth science capabilities by 2020.

Active satellite missions are projected to drop from just over 20  to fewer than 10.

Key instrumentation currently in orbit aboard those spacecraft will plummet from just over 80 to 20.

The NRC panel offered several observations to those reponsible for navigating the difficulties.

The nation’s Earth science programs are in need of a long term vision with a fixed and predicable mission sequence. Policy makers should strive to strike a balance between the highest science priorities and a viable mission sequence.

Program managers will face inevitable trade offs between science prorities and expenses, the NRC predicts. New technologies, mission partnerships and data gathering alternatives will become critical factors in restoring vibrancy.




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