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Remote Sensing

Report sees "rapid decline" in Earth observation capabilities

SPIE Newsroom
3 May 2011
The U.S. Earth observing system is "beginning a rapid decline in capability," according to a new report, as long-running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or cancelled. A committee of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board issued the report, which is a midterm assessment of NASA's implementation of the 2007 Decadal Survey of Earth Science Applications from Space.

While crediting NASA with successfully implementing several components of the Decadal Survey, including the Ocean Surface Topography mission and the NPOESS Preparatory Project, the report's authors sounded the alarm for the near future as Earth-observing assets reach the end of their functional lives and are not replaced.

"Improved coordination across missions and between disciplines is key to weathering this near-perfect storm of a decline in resources, increase in demands, and loss of heritage assets," the report says. "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. To this end, the committee reiterates the 2007 survey's call for a balanced set of good Earth science missions rather than just a few missions that strive for perfection in limited disciplines."

Taking into account the new budget realities since the Decadal Survey's publication, the report concludes: "Finding a balance between prioritizing science objective and creating a mission queue that is viable will be one of the great challenges for the Earth science community over the coming decades."

The committee chair is Dennis L. Hartmann, professor at the University of Washington's Department of Atmospheric Sciences. The committee is made up of representatives from research, academia and industry.

Download the report
Budget Shortfalls, Launch Delays Could Be Nightmare For Future Of Earth Observation Capabilities (RedOrbit)
Lights Out for Research Satellites? (New York Times blog)