THERE'S a new satellite ready to go into orbit that marks a watershed for the American eye-in-the-sky, weather-watching system.
Waiting on the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, NOAA-J - to be named NOAA-14 after launch - is an apparently routine addition to the polar-orbiting weather satellite suite. Launch of the satellite is special because it is the first satellite to go into service since the United States began the once seemingly impossible task of merging its civilian and military weather satellite operations.
This is ``the most significant change since the advent of meteorological satellites,'' according to Noel Longuemare, deputy under-secretary of defense for technology. It has been tried eight times in the past 22 years. Merger plans foundered each time on Department of Defense concerns about sharing operations with a civilian system. This time, the Clinton administration is determined to ensure the merger will succeed.
This is an important part of the administration's plans to streamline government in general. Moreover, as Vice President Al Gore Jr. has noted, the administration expects that ``the president's decision will cut costs and eliminate duplication.'' The Gore team anticipates savings of around $300 million over the next five years and $1 billion to $1.5 billion over the next 15 years. Most of that saving will appear after 2000, when the operations will be fully merged and the number of satellites reduced.
Acting under presidential order, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Department of Defense (DOD) set up what they call the Integrated Program Office in October. NOAA-14 enters service under the aegis of that new office.
This effort to integrate ``is going apace,'' according to NOAA's environmental satellite chief scientist Kathryn Sullivan. ``The immediate challenge,'' she says, ``is to get down to the fine levels of details'' needed to make civilian and military agencies work smoothly together, even though they have different needs and have had incompatible ways of doing things.
That includes developing a new satellite that can meet those varied needs.
Dr. Sullivan points out that ``these design and development efforts take a long time.'' That is why the first fully integrated weather satellite won't appear until a few years after the turn of the century. Meanwhile, Sullivan says, it will be ``more cost effective'' to continue with the weather satellite launches NOAA and the defense department have already planned for the rest of this decade.
Actually, there are two different weather satellite systems. The United States, Europe, and Japan maintain a network of so-called geosynchronous satellites. Orbiting 22,300 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the equator, these satellites move around their orbits at the same rate at which Earth turns. Thus, they hover above a given area on the ground. These are the satellites that generally give us the weather pictures on television. Their data has always been freely shared among nations. They are not involved in the new merger plans.
What is involved in the NOAA, NASA, DOD merger is a second system of quite different satellites of which NOAA-14 is typical.
The $67-million, 3,775-pound (1,712-kilogram) satellite is designed for an orbit about 540 miles (870 kilometers) high that very nearly goes over the north and south poles. NOAA-14 circles that orbit once every 102 minutes in what is called a sun-synchronous way. That means the satellite always crosses the equator at the same local time. In other words, it always sees clouds, ground, or sea under the same lighting conditions.
While these satellites can't provide a wide overview, they can make detailed measurements of important geophysical factors. NOAA-14, for example, can determine cloud or surface temperatures and construct temperature profiles from the surface to heights of as much as 25 miles (40 kilometers). It can also read data from automated ground stations and ocean buoys.
NOAA and the defense department have maintained two satellites each in the polar-orbiting system. NOAA plans to launch four more of its own satellites while the defense department has two more to go. These will operate, however, under the new Integrated Program Office.
Then, under the merger plan, the system will shrink to what chief scientist Sullivan calls a ``two-and-a-half'' satellite system.
This system will include two of the new integrated satellites plus instruments on one of NASA's planned Earth Observation System environmental orbiters. It may even become a ``three-and-a-half'' satellite system if Europe accepts the US invitation to set up a joint program with American instruments flying on a planned European polar-orbiting weather satellite.
There are many details to be worked out. But Sullivan says that, so far, she sees ``no showstoppers.''