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Steep decline projected for US Earth-observing satellites

The graph pretty much says it all. Still numb from a pair of spectacular failures, Earth scientists now find themselves staring into a scientific void as a combination of delays, rising costs, mission changes and budgetary woes threaten to wipe out much of the United States’ Earth-observing satellite capacity over the next decade.

It’s been a long time coming. Fully five years ago, in its first decadal survey of the nation’s space-based environmental-monitoring programme, the National Research Council (NRC) warned that the satellite system was “at risk of collapse”. In a mid-term assessment issued on Wednesday, the NRC reports that the overall outlook has darkened even further since then.

“The committee found that a rapid decline in capability is now beginning and that the needs for both investment and careful stewardship of the US Earth observations enterprise are more certain and more urgent now than they were five years ago,” the NRC said in the report (available in full here). Indeed, barring intervention, with older missions projected to fail far faster than new missions come on line, the report suggests that the total number of scientific instruments monitoring the Earth from space could decline by 75% by 2020.

The document focuses on NASA’s Earth science mission but expands as necessary to cover the space-based observations system (coordinated through NASA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Geological Survey. It serves as a sober reminder of the challenges ahead just a few short years after the administration of Barack Obama began, in the midst of an economic meltdown, working to ramp up funding for the physical sciences at NASA and other agencies (details here and here).

The report walks through the full suite of Earth-observing programmes at NASA in some detail, making recommendations for each. Broadly speaking, the committee found that NASA has made progress implementing recommendations from the 2007 survey, including initiation of a new ‘Venture’-class programme that focuses on smaller, competitively selected missions that can be developed and launched relatively quickly. Budget shortfalls have made it difficult for NASA to make progress in other areas, however, and the committee projected further difficulties ahead. As such, the report offers a series of recommendations intended to help the agency cope with the new fiscal landscape.

“Using realistic budget projections, the Earth science community cannot afford an all-encompassing program to enhance every aspect of Earth system science, nor can it afford collapse of the mission queue to save just a handful of missions,” the report concluded. “To this end, the committee reiterates the 2007 survey’s call for a set of good Earth science missions rather than just a few missions that strive for perfection in limited disciplines.”

Graphic: National Research Council

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