Mount Rainier

This image of Mt. Rainier depicts the main kinds of observations that the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission will make: glaciers (ice), volcanoes (crustal deformation), and forests (ecosystems).

NASA/JPL

Space agencies eye global Earth observatory

Major space agencies are edging toward agreement on a capability that climate watchers have long desired: an international satellite system for uniformly measuring greenhouse gas emissions and their capture in carbon sinks.

Next week, the heads of 11 space agencies are expected to issue a joint communique from a meeting in New Delhi calling for cooperation to calibrate instruments and validate measurements “to achieve an international, independent system for estimating the global emissions based on internationally accepted data.” “We need a global space observation system to be in place sooner than later,” says Jean-Yves Le Gall, the head of CNES, France’s space agency in Paris. “Cooperation among the space agencies is a must if planet Earth is to be saved.”

Currently, space-faring nations have a combined total of 130 Earth-observing satellites in orbit. But these platforms use varying standards, making it virtually impossible, experts say, to compare and verify data sets.

Space agency chiefs are skeptical that most Earth-observing satellites can be knitted together into a cohesive global observatory. Setting aside spy satellites and military assets, even for purely civilian satellites technology sharing, is not the norm. “Achieving standardization is rather difficult,” says Alain Ratier, director-general of EUMETSAT, the European Union’s coordinating body for meteorological satellites in Darmstadt, Germany. Kiran Kumar, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation in Bengaluru, India, agrees: He doesn’t see space agencies setting aside rivalries and working in concert on standardized instruments. “It will never happen,”  he says.

But funding crunches are forcing nations to forge more-limited alliances. For example, India and China have agreed to pool civilian Earth-sensing satellites to create a “virtual constellation” for the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). “We have been in dialogue with India on the BRICS Constellation for disaster-risk reduction,” says Yan Hua Wu, deputy administrator at the Chinese National Space Administration in Beijing. And India is teaming up with the United States on a $1 billion satellite mission slated for launch in 2021 that will monitor natural disasters like earthquakes and erupting volcanoes and more gradual but potentially calamitous processes like melting ice caps. The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite is the “need of the hour,” says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in Washington, D.C.