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Earth observation capabilities in ‘precarious position’ as budgets decline, says study

The ability to monitor severe weather and other natural events from space is in rapid decline because of budget cuts at the National Air and Space Administration, said a study by a group of scientists and the agency.

The study conducted by the National Research Council and sponsored by NASA, concluded that budget shortfalls, cost-estimate growth, launch failures, and changes in mission design and scope have left U.S. earth observation systems in a more precarious position than they were five years ago. 

The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. 

The report further cautions that earth observation systems that watch severe weather and other earth-bound phenomenon “is beginning a rapid decline in capability, as long-running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or cancelled.”

"The projected loss of observing capability will have profound consequences on science and society, from weather forecasting to responding to natural hazards," said Dennis Hartmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.  "Our ability to measure and understand changes in Earth's climate and life support systems will also degrade."

The report said that NASA’s progress has slowed in the last five years, blaming changes in program scope without commensurate funding, directed by the Office of Management and Budget and by congress.  It added that another problem is the lack of a reliable medium-class launch capability to carry satellites into orbit, although it said NASA has made some progress with its Venture Class earth observational program, suborbital program and its airborne science program.  

Those successes notwithstanding, the report said the agency’s funding for earth science programs are inadequate to meet “pressing national needs.”

“Therefore the agency should focus on two necessary actions: defining and implementing a cost-constrained approach to mission development, and identifying and empowering a cross-mission earth system science and engineering team to advise on the execution of decadal survey missions,” it said.