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.

Weather Underground/AP
This NOAA satellite image taken June 8 shows cloud cover and weather systems – some of which will be severe – affecting North America. Op-ed contributor and oceanographer Frank Muller-Karger worries he may not be able to depend on rapidly declining US satellites much longer. He warns that the US 'cannot depend on critical information and technology from other countries.'

SpaceX’s Dragon vehicle and its recent blast into space have gotten plenty of press. Many see the shift to privatized space travel as the nail in the coffin for the United States government’s space exploration. But you likely haven’t heard about another critical deficiency in the US space program: America is quickly losing its scientific satellites and the capabilities to launch them. Can we get industry and the US government to work together to get us back on track?

The United States was the first nation to deploy satellites to understand the Earth and its environment. In 1978, the NASA-NOAA SeaSat mission pioneered a number of technologies still good today to monitor the ocean. These space-based observations are critical for forecasting weather accurately, for scientific research, and for managing our natural resources.

We depend on these amazing eyes in the sky to build our economy, contain oil spills, monitor flooding, track storms, forecast local and global weather, and even put fish on our dinner tables. I know because as a biological oceanographer I use them every day. But I may not be able to do so for long.

A new report from the National Academies of Science entitled “Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Midterm Assessment of NASA’s Implementation of the Decadal Survey” tells us what we have known for more than five years: US satellites are in rapid decline, with few plans to replace them. Several of the oceanographic satellites that we have depended on for the past decade are no longer operating, and there are no plans to replace them.

The problem started in the mid-1990s, when the US government decided to drastically scale back NASA’s Earth Observing System. A misguided program was then started to merge all weather and Earth research satellite capabilities. The new program seriously downgraded entire series of satellites and resulted in huge cost overruns and minimal government oversight.

But guess who paid the bill? You and I did. Did the government learn a lesson? No. As we started the new millennium, NASA still had not provided a vision for continuing the measurements that its own scientists had proven are needed to understand our planet and to sustain our American way of life.

When the science community was finally asked to help, the National Academies of Science put together the Decadal Survey in 2007, which was then largely ignored by the US government.

According to the Academies’ newest reports, the US has now lost its wind sensors, an ocean color sensor, and a carbon observatory that did not reach space because of a rocket failure. The NASA Earth imaging sensors are now approaching 14 years in operation – more than twice their expected lifetime, and their cameras are degrading. We now have no US sensors capable of measuring ocean currents.

And while the United States plans to launch a replacement of the Landsat remote sensing satellite by 2013 to replace the one that broke 10 years ago, there is still no plan for how to continue this mission. Yet maintaining the US satellite program is mandated by The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992.

Our entire strategy to look at our own planet from space looks like this.

The new Academies report alerts us again that the number of in-orbit and planned NASA and NOAA Earth observing missions will decline from 23 in 2012 to only six in 2020. And the number of Earth observing instruments mounted on such satellites will fall from about 110 in 2011 to fewer than 30 in 2020.

NASA has now also lost the capability to launch mid-sized satellites. The rockets to launch this class of satellites for NASA have all failed since 2009. Today the US can only launch very small or very big satellites – but not the class of satellites that we need to look at our own planet for science and good management of resources.

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.

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.

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