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May 12, 2005

NASA cutting back on satellite-based sensors that monitor Earth

News and Information

Tight budgets and a shift in priorities are causing NASA to back away from satellite-based sensors that observe processes on Earth, according to the interim report “Earth Science and Applications from Space: Urgent Needs and Opportunities to Serve the Nation,” released at the end of April by a National Research Council panel.

Bolstered by the report, members of the House Science Committee attacked the Bush administration’s plans to cancel or delay several missions in NASA’s $1.5 billion earth science program, reported Science magazine in its May 6 edition. Legislators complained about the lack of a detailed and comprehensive global observation strategy and took issue with NASA’s vague plans to transfer some activities to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists hope the vocal, bipartisan criticism will force NASA to rethink its plans, Science says.

“The report noted the large number of cancellations in Earth observation research missions by NASA,” says Kathie Kelly, an oceanographer with the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory and one of two UW faculty members on the 12-member panel. “The report made it clear that this shift would cause irrecoverable losses in progress toward understanding — and therefore solving or mitigating — such things as hurricanes, droughts, flooding and tsunamis and climate change.”

In the 1980s NASA had a vision for the earth sciences and the role that space observations could play, says Dennis Lettenmaier, UW professor of civil and environmental engineering, who’s also on the panel. That vision resulted in the Mission to Planet Earth and the EOS, Earth Observing System, series of satellites.

“The EOS satellites have now been launched and NASA seems not to understand what it should do next,” Lettenmaier says. “This is despite the well documented decline in global observing systems that serve key societal needs, like weather prediction, natural hazard mitigation and climate prediction.”

In the meantime, the Bush administration has articulated a vision that man should go to the moon again and to Mars.

“This will require way more money than has been budgeted,” Lettenmaier says. “To get the moon-Mars exploration vision jump started, the earth sciences missions and their science underpinnings are slowly being bled.”

A recent example was the cancellation in February of the $100 million Geostationary Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer, an instrument that could improve detection of weather changes that lead to severe storms like tornadoes and hurricanes.

After issuing the interim report, which is available at http://qp.nas.edu/decadalsurvey, the panel is now turning its attention to a broader “decadal survey” of where NASA should go with Earth and environmental observations in 2005-2015 time frame.