NASA successfully launched a new polar-orbiting satellite today, a small but notable success that should stave off a much-feared gap in basic weather and climate measurements for at least a few more years.
The looming data gap has its roots in the long-troubled and now-disbanded National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which was created in 1994 in order to more efficiently manage previously separate defence and civilian satellite programmes. Some of the background drama is in our recent editorial, but the short story is that it didn’t work.
Originally intended as an interim research spacecraft, NASA’s NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) will now serve as a workhorse satellite that provides critical data to the US weather forecasting system and long-term measurements used by climate researchers. In the meantime, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA are already working to develop the first satellite in the newly restructured Joint Polar Satellite System. Unfortunately, that programme has run smack into the ongoing budget crisis, and budgetary delays now increase the odds of a data gap in the out years.
But the good news is that NPP made it into space. Given the spectacular failures with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009 and Glory earlier this year, that is not something that can be taken for granted. And once in space, many satellites last well beyond their mission life. Time will tell if NPP can hold on long enough to prevent a lapse.