Decline of American satellites is a matter of national security
America's scientific satellites are in rapid decline, with few plans to replace them. The United States depends on satellites to track storms, monitor disasters, and build the economy. The US and private industry must work together to rebuild the satellite fleet.
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Because we are not building satellites, we are rapidly losing the best engineers to design satellite systems, while our scientists and graduate students no longer have access to the raw data we had only a year or two ago – or even 10 years ago. This means loss of expertise and technology with long-term implications for national security.Skip to next paragraph
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The loss is not just for scientists. The satellite data we use translates into managing everything from fisheries and shipping lanes to tracking red tides off Florida, Texas, California, and Mexico. At universities, scientists and students work with all levels of government agencies to measure water quality conditions of the estuaries and coasts of our entire country as well as other nations.
Satellites were a key means to track oil during the Deepwater Horizon disaster and to help prevent more oil from reaching our coasts. Satellites also monitor the effects on the ocean from Mississippi River flooding, track storms, and estimate whether hurricanes will strengthen in warmer sea temperatures.
Today, China, India, Russia, South Korea, Japan, European nations, and several other countries are aggressively developing oceanographic satellite sensors. Yet our own country frequently delays new missions, cancels on-going missions, and suffers from launch failures, disorganization, and changes in mission design and scope. The American science community is often told by NASA managers to go look elsewhere for information and to use the foreign sensors if they can get the data.
The loss of our space capabilities is not just a matter of pride, nor is it hysteria. It’s a matter of national security. Our nation cannot depend on critical information and technology from other countries, especially when we know that the data are not as good as that from our sensors. And this is only if we can get the data from our international colleagues at all – a well-known bone of contention for US scientists.
The US needs an immediate plan put together jointly by all relevant US agencies, working with industry, to bring down satellite costs, fix our launch capabilities, and lay out a series of affordable and high-quality missions that give the best possible data to the US taxpayer. Such a partnership between government, researchers, and private industry is our best and only way forward.
Of course, these are challenging fiscal times, but as Congress tightens belts, America needs to keep continued activity in space science and engineering as a top national priority. Launching, maintaining, and improving satellites, whose data are vital to everyone dependent on a healthy and productive planet, is a priority that we cannot ignore.
Frank Muller-Karger is a professor of biological oceanography and remote sensing at the University of South Florida and the director of the Institute of Marine Remote Sensing.