Keeping more eyes on the planet

How vital is America's armada of Earth-watching satellites? Just ask forest firefighters or water managers tracking the West's winter snowpack. Many know this armada is in serious trouble. Washington needs to put the system on a stable orbit.

A National Research Council panel has just issued a recommended, 10-year blueprint for earth-science space missions. The price tag for 15 missions: $7.5 billion. These are critical to achieve. In concert with a growing number of satellites lofted by other countries, these eyes in the sky will deepen humanity's understanding of how the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere work as a system – and how human activity is altering the system.

These are not expensive toys for cloistered PhDs. The knowledge they generate weaves itself into more accurate and timely weather and climate forecasts. And they provide virtually instant information that allows governments and aid agencies to track droughts, ocean conditions, logging activity in remote rain forests, even potential human rights abuses, such as forced relocations.

The report's recommendations come at a time when the world is increasingly dependent on satellites to measure the environment. That dependency is likely only to grow.

Last year, some 60 countries and dozens of nongovernmental organizations began to implement a 10-year plan to establish a network of space-based, ocean-based, and land-based environmental sensors. And it comes at a time when satellite capabilities are expanding.

For example, software engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have developed ways to allow satellites to select their own objects to view, using artificial intelligence to train them in the art of picking the "interesting" or "unusual."

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) do the heavy lifting for Earth-observation missions. After some budgetary see-saws in the 1990s, the earth-science budget has steadily declined since about 2002. President Bush's priority on space exploration has contributed to the slide. Many lawmakers have expressed concern, with NASA administrator Michael Griffin telling them, in essence: I can only work with the budgets I get; they show little future growth; and the president has given our agency its priorities of replacing the shuttle, finishing the space station, and returning humans to the moon.

Since Congress holds the purse strings, it can come up with more money for Earth surveillance.

NOAA and the Pentagon, meanwhile, have come under fire for cost overruns on a new generation of shared polar-orbiting weather satellites – three years behind schedule and $3 billion over budget.

Experts say it would take about $500 million a year more than the government currently is spending to put the country's earth-science satellite program back on track. That investment also should come with strong oversight. By many accounts, humans have become the dominant force for environmental change on the planet – putting humanity increasingly in the position of having to manage the planet, rather than merely inhabit it.

It would be foolish to shortchange critical management of that task.

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