Missions impossible? NASA is delaying or canceling several long-planned earth science missions.

Earth Observation in the Balance

Senior U.S. scientists are urging NASA and the Bush Administration to reverse plans to postpone or cancel several satellites designed to gather data on the land, sea, and atmosphere. In an interim report released today, a National Research Council (NRC) panel warns that "the nation's Earth observation program is at risk" from tight budgets at NASA and other federal agencies.

The final report, due out in late 2006, will lay out a course for space-based Earth observation with clear priorities. But NASA's recent moves to scale back future programs and turn off currently operating satellites prompted committee members to push through a report that could influence congressional debate on the 2006 budget, which goes into effect on 1 October.

The 18-member NRC panel was co-chaired by Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and Berrien Moore, a biogeochemist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. It did not shy away from specific recommendations. NASA should proceed "immediately" with the oft-delayed Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, it concluded. The spacecraft, with contributions from Japan, would provide important data on Earth's water cycle.

The NRC panel also wants NASA to resume work on the $100 million Geostationary Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer that could improve detection of weather changes leading to tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. NASA, which is working with two universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), canceled the mission in February. But the panel urges the agency to finish the instrument and seek international help in launching the satellite by 2008.

In addition, the interim report recommends "urgent reconsideration" of a planned cancellation of three other missions-a probe called Ocean Vector Winds to enhance the accuracy of severe storm forecasts, a spacecraft to continue Landsat observations, and the Glory satellite to measure atmospheric aerosols. In a suggested cost-saving move, the committee suggests that the instruments planned for the canceled missions could be flown instead on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), which is being built for a 2010 launch.

Earth scientists are looking for what Moore calls a "politically compelling agenda" to overcome such obstacles--and quickly. Congress is at work on NASA's 2006 request, and the agency already is preparing its 2007 wish list for the White House. "We've been running on the fumes of the past, and we need a vehicle to bring the community together," says Moore.

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Moore's home page