Salmon fishermen count on weather satellites to help them locate their catch; oil companies use the satellites to help find the Gulf Stream so they can save money on their tankers' fuel bills; and citrus farmers are warned of cold fronts by the orbiting weather monitors.
First launched 20 years ago this month, weather satellites have now become a business tool. According to a 1972 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the satellites saved some $172 million annually. Today, states David S. Johnson, director of the National Environmental Satellite Service (NESS), they are probably saving a lot more money. And when the satellite correctly informs officials about a dangerous hurricane or cyclone, it no doubt saves even more.
However, the cost of gazing at the clouds from 450 miles up has been high.Mr. Johnson of NESS figures the total cost has run into hundreds of millions of dollars. This year his budget is $90 million, which includes the cost of the satellites, launching them, running the ground operations, and the supporting research. "Unfortunately," he notes, "inflation in high technology areas is bad and the numbers keep rising rapidly."
For example, RCA Corporation, whose Astro-Electronics division manufactures the weather satellites, is talking about building a series of satellites that would cost more than $600 million.
The first weather satellite system, which included Tiros 1, was launched in April 1960 and cost a total of $10 million. This system was only capable of transmitting live TV pictures from space. The proposed system, called NOSS for National Oceanic Satellite System, is to be in operation in 1986 and would monitor the seas, including temperature, ice movement, and wave heights.
According to Abraham Schnapf, chief scientist for Astro-Electronics, the major cost increases have come from the expense of ground stations and launches. For example, in 1960 it cost $4 million to $5 million for a booster to launch a satellite. Today, it runs from $15 million to $18 million.
He maintains that cost per pound for the satellites has remained at $10,000 although the weight of the satellites has increased markedly. The first satellite, for example, weighed 300 pounds compared with 3,200 pounds today.
In spite of these rising expenses, Congress so far has not complained about the cost of monitoring the weather. NESS has come through the budget-slicing process without losing so much as a raindrop of its budget. "We're keeping our fingers crossed," says Mr. Johnson, "because you can't take anything for granted these days."
If Congress were to look at the satellites and their usefulness, it might ask how much they have improved weather forecasting. According to Mr. Johnson, forecasting has improved slowly. Today, he says, "satellite observation is contributing, but not in a dramatic way, to improved weather prediction." He estimates that predictions have improved enough so that the odds are good that a two-day weather prediction will come true, compared with a one-day prediction before. However, Mr. Johnson notes, "How much weather prediction has improved is a controversial topic, and each scientist would give you a different answer."
But there is little argument over the importance of the non-weather applications of the satellites. This includes the monitoring of sea temperatures, air temperatures, and radiation output.
Thus, for example, Exxon Corporation, at the request of NESS, estimated that as a result of satellites following the position of the Gulf Stream, it had saved $360,000 in 1973 for its fleet of 50 tankers. Today that saving would be even higher.
In Florida, freeze warnings issued to citrus growers allow them to act if a cold front threatens their crop. The potential savings, Mr. Johnson says, is $1 million per hour and possibly $50 million per year.
Likewise, in Hawaii, the Wailau Sugar Company uses a geostationary satellite to control the harvesting of sugar cane. The satellite lets harvesters know when to bring in the crop before rains arrive.
The weather satellites also have aided search and rescue efforts since many flight accidents are weather-related. Thus, by looking at weather pictures, searchers can narrow down probable crash areas. According to Mr. Johnson, although search and rescue missions are up 15 percent, the number of hours spent on the missions is down 60 percent. This saves about $7 million per year.
RCA would like to launch a satellite that would pick up a signal from any plane or ship that was in danger. Another satellite might give a warning via a Dick Tracy-type of wrist- watch when a short-term type of storm, such as a tornado, was sighted by the orbitting monitor.
However, neither of these two projects have made it past the drawing board.
Although RCA has been the predominant builder of the satellites, sit faces competition from Ford Aerospace and Hughes Aircraft in the bidding for future systems.