West Europe asks: would sale of US satellites freeze weather data?

Scientists in Western Europe are dismayed that the United States government wants to sell its weather satellites to private enterprise. They think the transfer could damage the free exchange of meteorological data among developed countries.

Furthermore, the changeover could throw into disarray plans in the US to share with other nations some of the costs of running the satellites. Governments in Western Europe may not be prepared to cooperate if they must deal with a private company which is in the satellite business solely for profit.

President Reagan wants to sell the satellites on the grounds that private enterprise would run the craft more cheaply. Also, the administration says, a private company would offer more innovative services, battling competitors from abroad that are challenging the US lead in remote sensing by satellite. Japan and France plan commercial remote-sensing satellites later this decade.

But selling the satellites could disrupt the way countries interchange data, which has been a rare example of global cooperation. Data from weather satellites are swapped via a telecommunications network operated by the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva.

Besides the US, the Soviet Union, Japan, and the 11 nations of the European Space Agency (ESA) run weather satellites. The leading Western European countries met last week in Paris to set up a formal organization to operate weather craft. ESA has until now operated West Europe's weather satellites informally for the individual governments.

Officially, the view of the meteorological organization is that the proposed sale would make no difference to the global network. The understanding is any private company taking over the vehicles would sell weather data to the US government for a set price. Then the US would meet its international obligations by swapping the data in the previous pattern.

But behind the scenes at WMO there are rumblings of discontent. A senior WMO scientist, who asked not to be named, said: ''WMO will fight this proposal to the death. It would mean the freezing of any further scientific progress in the area of cooperation over weather data.''

The official reasons that a private company, motivated by the desire for profits, would be unlikely to increase the quality of its data in the interests of international cooperation. The principle of freely exchanging data would be undermined by a firm setting out to market the information at the highest price, the scientist says.

Britain would be particularly affected by any new arrangements. Its Meteorological Office, owned by the Ministry of Defense, needs data from around the world to prepare forecasts for civilian use and for the British military forces.

''We are keeping our fingers crossed,'' said a Meteorological Office spokesman. ''But there is some concern that in the future we may not obtain the kind of data that we are used to under the present system.''

President Reagan's announcement may cast a shadow over the trip to Europe next month of John McElroy, head of the US National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which operates the weather craft. Mr. McElroy will meet with officials at the WMO and several West European capitals, including London and Paris, about informal plans to share the costs of the US system.

The US proposal is that West European nations - possibly together with Japan and Canada - take over responsibility for one of the two US polar weather satellites. The countries could do this either by paying the US or by operating the craft autonomously.

Such involvement of other nations could save the US some $30 million annually. At present, the government spends about $230 million a year on its five weather satellites, plus Landsat (earth resources satellites), but recoups only about $20 million from sales of Landsat data.

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