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US Climate Satellite Capabilities In Jeopardy 127

An anonymous reader writes with this excerpt from Wired: "The United States is in danger of losing its ability to monitor key climate variables from satellites, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. The country's Earth-observing satellite program has been underfunded for a decade, and the impact of the lack of funds is finally hitting home. The GAO report found that capabilities originally slated for two new Earth-monitoring programs, NPOESS and GOES-R, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense, have been cut, and adequate plans to replace them do not exist. Meanwhile, up until six months ago, NASA had 15 functional Earth-sensing satellites. Two of them went down in the past year, and of the remaining 13, 12 are past their design lifetimes. Only seven may be functional by 2016, said Waleed Abdalati, a longtime NASA satellite scientist now teaching at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Taken together, American scientists will soon find themselves without the ability to monitor changes to key Earth systems at a time when such measurements could help determine the paths of the world's energy and transportation systems."
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US Climate Satellite Capabilities In Jeopardy

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  • by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:01AM (#32468442)
    And where exactly does the White House get these facts? This isn't like the Bush administration which could just make things up, because quite frankly a lot of idiots out there buy into it and the press gives him a largely free pass.
  • Re:Let's collaborate (Score:5, Informative)

    by wiredlogic ( 135348 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:15AM (#32468504)

    The US is too large to receive adequate coverage from across the Atlantic and Pacific. Japan has had its own problems with an imagery gap and was using GOES-9 [wikipedia.org] on loan from us until a few years ago. Geosynchronous satellites can't easily be repositioned as it wastes fuel that is needed for basic stationkeeping.

  • Historical Record... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Lunatrik ( 1136121 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:20AM (#32468530)
    One thing that is frequently overlooked is the importance of comparable satellites through time for long-term environmental monitoring. This makes collaboration with other countries /sensors challenging, as to say Landsat ETM data's ~30m (for example) is comparable to SPOT data's ~10m (again, for example) is quite a stretch. Common tools for taking care of these differences are fraught with problems, and worse still many people don't care about or just ignore these problems during analysis....
  • Re:Outsourced (Score:5, Informative)

    by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:33AM (#32468586) Journal

    Because where the satellite is has a large impact on the data.

    There are really only two classes of orbit for Earth-observation satellite platforms: geostationary and low-earth polar. In the summary, GOES-R is the US follow-on geostationary, and NPOESS is the US follow-on polar orbiter.

    Geostationary satellites provide continuous coverage but somewhat low resolution, and coverage of the same hemisphere of the Earth at all times. Because satellite observations at the limb of the visible hemisphere is low-quality (low incident angle with the Earth's surface, long slant path through the atmosphere, etc.), you really can't just have two geos for the entire world. You need at least four, at 90 degree offsets, and more if you can afford it. The US operates two: GOES-11 and GOES-12, out over the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean respectively. There are more, operated by other nations, and we do share data with them. We even coordinate operations: When the Japanese Meteorological Agency had its on-station geosat (GMS-5) fail and its replacement failed to reach orbit after launch, the US reactivated the retired Pacific geo GOES-9, shifted its orbit to cover GMS-5's slot, and leased it to the Japanese. (Leased, of course, because (A) you need to cover the additional costs of operating another satellite, and (B) why walk away from profit?)

    So, what's the point of that little discussion? If the US loses both of current active geostationaries, someone else (another nation) would have to shift an existing spacecraft over to cover it and lease it to us. That's a bit bigger than "sharing the data", which, as I point out, we already do. And that's also only a temporary state of affairs, since no one will ever shift over their primary on-station geostationary. It'd have to be a spare, and probably not a future spare, but a deactivated retired spacecraft, and therefore very very temporary.

    That's geostationary spacecraft. In summary, the US needs to have 2 spacecraft stationed at 135 degrees West and 104 degrees West, and no one else will be providing them on any terms and with any permanence we'd need in order to rely on them.

    Polar-orbiters? Kind of a similar situation. A polar-orbiting earth-observing spacecraft orbits at about 100 miles up and an orbital inclination of about 80 degrees. (A 90 degree orbital inclination passes over both poles; a 0 degree inclination parallels the equator.) That orbital path allows the spacecraft to look down at Earth in a track that eventually (approximately every 30 hours) covers the entire surface of the Earth. But that's a long time between looks at a particular spot on Earth. The low orbit provides wonderful resolution: each pixel in the imagery of one of the next-generation polar orbiters can be as small as 400 meters. For meteorology and climate observation, that's fantastic. But very low frequency. So you need multiple spacecraft to provide adequate temporal resolution (each pixel is newer than 24 hours). Also, different spacecraft can look at any given point on Earth at different local times (i.e., one spacecraft sees Albuquerque at about 6 AM local time, the next sees it at around 2:30 PM.) This matters because time-of-day variation and sun zenith angle matter at the resolutions and sensitivities of the instruments in question.

    No one but the US operates polar orbiters in the polar slots that the US currently occupies, so no one can provide the data for us to use.

  • Re:Let's collaborate (Score:2, Informative)

    by etresoft ( 698962 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:46AM (#32468640)

    I wonder if we could work more closely with Europe and Japan so together we'd get all the data we need without having to foot the whole bill.

    We already do that. One of the key instruments on NASA's Terra satellite is Japan's ASTER. Terra is on year 11 of a 5 year mission. But Japan's funding in this area is much smaller than that of the US.

  • Re:You are blind (Score:5, Informative)

    by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:46AM (#32468642) Homepage
    While many of your points are correct and the person you are replying to is a bit of an ass, let's not forget that these cuts occurred under Bush. See for example http://news.mongabay.com/2007/0502-aaas.html [mongabay.com]. Part of the logic here seemed to almost be "I don't believe that climate change is a problem or is occurring and if I cut your funding you won't be able to show that it is bad." Or something very close to that. This particular problem really can be blamed on the Bush admin.
  • Re:National Security (Score:4, Informative)

    by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:47AM (#32468654) Journal

    Or does the defense department have their own weather satellite network?

    That's a good question. It's wrapped up in this story.

    The short answer is that yes, DoD has its own weather satellite network for the polar orbiting capability. It's called DMSP [wikipedia.org], and it's the granddaddy of polar orbiter weather satellites. Spacecraft from that program are still flying, but no new ones are being acquired. After the current and on-orbit spares are gone, that's probably it.


    As part of a Clinton-administration order, all US weather satellite operations and acquisition activities were "converged" into a single agency. DoD lost its ability to independently acquire military weather sats, or begin development of new ones. The joint Earth observation satellite program now includes NOAA, NASA, and the DoD, and they have a limited budget and somewhat conflicting goals. But the practical effect is that everyone has to contribute to, and use when they become available, the next-generation EO satellites the article was talking about. To replace DMSP birds, the DoD is depending on NPOESS, since that's the next-gen polar orbiter.

  • by etresoft ( 698962 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:52AM (#32468682)
    It is even harder than that. Resolution isn't important for science - spectral bands are. Landsat ETM+ has 8 bands, while SPOT has 4. The MODIS instrument alone on NASA's Terra and Aqua spacecraft has 36 bands. ASTER has 15 bands just for infrared.
  • Re:So? (Score:5, Informative)

    by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:58AM (#32468702) Journal

    I think the climate angle of this story is being overplayed. Makes sense, really; that's the sexy hot topic in the big-brain set, and a great way to sell if you're selling satellites.

    But these aren't just climate change "OMG Evil CO2" satellites. These are operational meteorological satellites. If you like decent weather forecasts and value the ability to track hurricanes and typhoons (and other assorted tropical storm phenomena), you care about these spacecraft. Satellite meteorology has revolutionized severe weather handling and medium-range weather forecasting for the last 40 years. Let's not quit now because Al Gore has painted the cross of Climate Change on the sides of these spacecraft.

  • by Lunatrik ( 1136121 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @10:58AM (#32468706)
    "Resolution isn't important for science"

    Spatial resolution is very important in my field (Land Use/Cover analysis), mostly due to Modifiable Areal Unit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modifiable_areal_unit_problem) / Ecological Fallacy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecological_fallacy) issues.

    That being said, I do agree Spectral resolution is very important as well, and a difference I shouldn't have omitted in my original post. Even radiometric and temporal resolution matters when you get down to it.
  • Re:Yup (Score:5, Informative)

    by 99BottlesOfBeerInMyF ( 813746 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @11:30AM (#32468832)

    Secondly, another reason is the number of people who live and work on farms. If you didn't subsidise, all of those people would be out of work.

    I think you're missing the distinction. A lot of us are in favor of subsidizing small farmers in order to have a secure supply of food grown in our nation. The thing is, it used to be primarily small farms and a small portion of large agricultural operations. But large farming operations have driven the population you mention out of business and mostly out of work. 25% of the US lived and worked on farms in the 30's when the subsidies were first implemented. Now it's less than 2% of our population, with the majority of those subsidies going to huge corporate farms. In fact, a study a few years ago showed 73% of the subsidies are disproportionately paid to the 10% of farming production that makes up the largest, corporate farms. We not only subsidize larger farms more, but vastly more in proportion to what they make, underwriting their ability to drive out small farms and lower overall rates of employment.

    But simply saying "corporate welfare" is a bit too general and doesn't help understand the underlying issues.

    "Corporate Welfare" is a term used to describe bills and funding that move cash from tax dollars into the pockets of large corporations. It primarily happens because those corporations use their money to buy influence over the political system to create or modify laws in their favor. This is a pretty clear cut case of corporate welfare.

  • Re:National Security (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 05, 2010 @02:06PM (#32469842)

    That was changed earlier this year - the NPOESS was terminated and DoD and NASA/NOAA are now on separate development paths. DoD will be responsible for the morning polar satellites while NASA/NOAA will develop satellites for the mid-afternoon orbits. The United States will continue to rely on the European Metop satellites for weather data in the morning orbit.

  • Re:You are blind (Score:2, Informative)

    by pankajmay ( 1559865 ) on Saturday June 05, 2010 @07:24PM (#32471760)

    What part of the health care reform bill will save thousands of lives? Do you even know what the bill does? Have you read any of it? Even a summary? All the bill does is give more money to insurance corporations, force people to buy health insurance who didn't before, and tax the middle class. That's it. There's no magic spells in it to save lives. You've swallowed the partisan bullcrap hook, line, and sinker.

    Ok, I think you are going a little overboard in trying to prove your point. The health care bill though may be not as dramatic, is a significant step.

    Here are some of the things it does, that did not happen before:

    1. Cover pre-existing medical condition.
    2. Cover a child with pre-existing condition.
    3. The insurance companies are not allowed to rescind their coverage if you develop a serious illness
    4. Customers of all insurance plans will ow have a right to appeal any denial of coverage - not possible before for everyone.
    5. No lifetime cap on coverage by the insurance companies.
    6. Health insurance shopping exchange.

    Look, I get your argument for not buying into partisan arguments, but do not deny things that were actually achieved. It is true that Republicans did not want all those changes above and are actively working to weaken them.

    Democratic processes work via consensus and it is true that to a certain extent they are all tainted. However, passage of this health care bill would not have happened without this president.

    Somehow I feel that it is people who have gotten so sick of all this partisan muck that allow the party of bigotry (GOP) to actually advance ahead with senseless arguments - because this party targets people's emotions in a misleading way to garner its support.

    This does not mean that democrats are in the white -- but currently what we really need in this country is a little more logic, and a lot less rhetoric. And much of this implies that people who have gotten sick must make their voice heard.

Love may laugh at locksmiths, but he has a profound respect for money bags. -- Sidney Paternoster, "The Folly of the Wise"