Earth Observation Instruments in a Slump: Why Should We Care?
Thursday, June 7th, 2012
Firstly, what are Earth observation instruments? Secondly, why do we need them?
A recent report suggests a decline of U.S. Earth observation instruments within the next eight years, and it’s caused quite a buzz — especially over concerns that the losses could seriously hinder weather forecasting. In particular, the ability to spot tropical disturbances early and track their formation into hurricanes.
This report has come out in a year in which two tropical Atlantic storms have grown large enough to earn names well before the official hurricane season began on June 1. The report by the National Research Council said that budget cuts, the failure of at least two launches, and an aging fleet of satellites will reduce the number of Earth observing instruments. Instruments that NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have had in space from a peak of about 110 last year, to fewer than 30 by 2020.
But what are they? Well, an Earth observing instrument is anything used to – ready? – observe the Earth. That can mean anything from a birdwatcher’s notes on bird sightings, to a wave-sensing buoy in the ocean, to radar and sonar recordings taken from an unmanned drone, to high-resolution images taken from an orbiting space satellite.
We need such sources to provide information on serious changes in the Earth’s environment, whether that’s shifting trends in wildlife populations or land uses, monitoring and responding to natural disasters, managing supplies of energy and water, or predicting the weather. Various organizations are interested in making sure that those instruments, however high or low tech, are in place and maintained. The Group on Earth Observations, for instance, is a voluntary “partnership of governments and international organizations,” including “88 governments and the European Commission.”
The European Space Agency produces an “Earth Observation Handbook,” in conjunction with the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites, that is a database of more than 260 satellite missions and more than 400 distinct instruments used in more than 700 types of observations (with some instruments fulfilling multiple requirements.)
The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering in the United States, and first reported the U.S. system of environmental satellites was “at risk of collapse” in 2005. The most recent report basically outlines what’s made things worse since then. And for the most part it comes down to problems getting satellites into space, as some rocket launches failed and others have become victim to budget cuts.
But the research council’s report was not hopeless.
It noted optimism over several international partnerships that held promise, including joint U.S. missions with Argentina, Taiwan, Japan, Germany and a European meteorological satellite group. The report also noted other platform possibilities, including piloted and unpiloted aircraft, tagging along on other commercially launched satellites, and wider use of arguably the most famous Earth observing instrument currently in orbit – the International Space Station.
And while the U.S. access to space may be limited for now, especially with the end of the Space Shuttle program, other nations and organizations are continuing to expand their reach into space. Even as NASA officials were touting the successful launch of the first private, commercial spacecraft by SpaceX, the last two weeks also saw satellite launches by China and by Japan with a South Korean payload.
In addition, Space Systems/Loral launched a Proton Breeze M rocket from Kazakhstan for the Ottawa-based Telesat, with a telecommunications satellite to provide advanced television service for Canada.
And that has to be music to somebody’s ears.
By AJ Plunkett
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.