The European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2B satellite launched into orbit from French Guyana Monday night. Set to circle the Earth in a polar orbit at the exact opposite point from its twin, Sentinel 2A, its visual and infrared camera will bolster the Copernicus program, a Europe-backed network of Earth-observation satellites.
It’s scheduled to have company. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to launch JPSS-1, another polar-orbiting observation satellite, later this year, on the heels of the successful GOES-R weather satellite launch in November.
But clouds could lie ahead for these and other missions. Last Friday, the Washington Post obtained a White House Budget memo that proposed cutting NOAA’s satellite division budget by $513 million, about 22 percent. Carol Anne Clayson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, says that moves like these from the Trump administration have scientists on both sides of the Atlantic worried.
“The little bit that I have spoken with my colleagues from outside of the United States, concern about what might be happening has certainly been ongoing,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. In addition to NOAA, Dr. Clayson says that the prospect of cuts to NASA’s Earth Sciences division – which also has a hand in the new satellites – “is worrisome to all of us.”
Cuts to US satellite funding could make waves across the Atlantic. In recent decades, US and European scientists have planned on a future of joint Earth observations. They say satellites like JPSS and Sentinel have already improved our day-to-day lives by making weather forecasts more accurate, and that even non-scientists have a stake in preserving that progress.
“While NOAA's Satellite and Information Service (NESDIS) operates many satellites, no one country alone can afford to effectively monitor the entire Earth,” NOAA spokesperson John Leslie tells the Monitor in an email. For this and other reasons, NOAA and its European counterpart EUMETSAT, the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, have forged agreements that allow US and European scientists to use data from each other’s polar-orbiting satellites, a protocol known as the Joint Polar System.
This allows American scientists to access images from Sentinel-2’s high-resolution cameras. Steve Ackerman, associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that data from US and European satellites makes a difference for him and his colleagues at UW's Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies.
Having information from both Sentinel and JPSS, he explains in an email, helps "our scientists...explore issues about water quality, atmospheric motions, atmospheric turbulence, changing cloud cover and monitoring air quality."
Meanwhile, Woods Hole's Dr. Clayson says that European satellites have been "particularly useful" in her research involving sea surface temperatures.
And the next time you check the weather on your phone, you’re also drawing on European know-how.
Philip Ardanuy, chief science officer at Innovim and a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, explains that US weather satellites pass over the Northern Hemisphere in the afternoon, crossing the equator after 12pm local time, while European satellites pass over in the morning.
"It's one of these win-win situations," he tells the Monitor over the phone. "The European satellite data improves our model forecasts, coming in their morning orbit. Our afternoon orbit improves our forecasts, but improves theirs as well. Everybody wins."
Having worked in meteorology since 1980, Dr. Ardanuy has seen firsthand the difference that satellite forecasting has made. "You don't really see jokes about weather and weathermen in the comics anymore, because there's been a dramatic improvement in weather prediction over the last couple [of] decades," he says.
In addition, other countries’ satellites have likely saved American lives. According to NOAA's John Leslie, a 2012 European study found that “NOAA forecasts of Hurricane Sandy’s track could have been hundreds of miles off” – showing the hurricane out at sea, rather than making landfall – “without information from polar-orbiting satellites.”
If the federal government cuts funding for satellites like these, Ardanuy doesn’t expect Europe to pick up the slack. “The Europeans aren't going to fly in an afternoon orbit,” he predicts. “It's not in their budget.”
It’s not yet clear where the administration’s proposed budget cuts, if realized, would fall – on the satellites themselves, on NOAA’s data-processing centers, or elsewhere. But Dr. Ardanuy sees a bleak end result: “Our weather prediction skill will drop.... Not just ours, but the Europeans' as well, because they depend on our data for their forecasting. Are we prepared for that?”
But the budget is still far from fixed. As the Monitor reported last Friday, NOAA’s JPSS-1 satellite involves universities and research centers across the country, giving even senators and representatives from deep-red states reason to preserve the program.
And this isn’t the first time that US politics has thrown international research projects up in the air. Unlike Europe’s multi-country agencies, which proceed slowly but predictably, “we have different administrations that come in and out," says Clayson. "Budgets fluctuate wildly.”
According to science historian John Krige, one of those huge budget shifts came in 1994, when newly appointed NASA administrator Daniel Goldin threatened to withdraw from the joint Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.
“I think if scientists can provide a good justification for projects, and if those projects have an international component, it can help,” says Professor Krige, who teaches at Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology, in a phone interview with the Monitor.
“But it often also requires, if it's an international project, a diplomatic démarche of some kind,” he adds.
In the case of Cassini, ESA's director general warned that NASA's withdrawal could put future collaboration in jeopardy. Dr. Goldin softened his stance, and Cassini is now wrapping up a successful 20-year mission.
A specific strategy to protect NOAA’s satellite budget – and the international Earth-observation venture it supports – will likely have to wait until April, when the Trump administration is expected to release its full budget proposal for fiscal year 2018.
If the deep cuts to Earth-observing satellites remain, expect to hear plenty about how these satellites have improved our lives.
“I think it's an irony that Americans for the most part benefit from the weather forecasts and the data that comes from the weather satellites every day,” Ardanuy says. “It's so behind-the-scenes that we take it for granted.”
“Yes, it's expensive. But it's an investment in the safety and health of every American.”