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Researchers lay out wish list for Earth-observing satellites

January 16, 2007 By Geoff Brumfiel This article courtesy of Nature News.

Approval of new projects would avoid 'fatal' gaps in measurement.

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A committee of prominent Earth scientists has recommended that the US government fund 17 new Earth-observing missions over the next decade. Without these steps, they say, researchers could be left for years without critical data on climate change.

"Gaps in these measurements could be fatal," warns committee co-chair Richard Anthes, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The panel urged that roughly US$500 million be restored to NASA's Earth-observing budget, and that several cancelled scientific instruments be reinstated on satellites already in the works by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies.

The committee, of more than 50 scientists, was convened by the National Research Council to prioritize Earth-observation projects over the next decade. Such 'decadal reviews' are conducted in other fields, most notably astronomy, but this was the first time one had been conducted in the Earth sciences.

The recommendations are designed to help society, not just scientists, says Anthes. "We've organized the report along societal themes such as weather, Earth hazards, climate, water resources and human health," he says.

The group had to choose from among more than 100 suggested projects, ranging from instruments that measure changes in the height of ice sheets to a satellite to measure air quality and ocean health. The price tags range from around $65 million to $800 million; all 17 chosen ones could be built on a relatively modest budget of $3 billion a year, Anthes says. The missions would be phased in over a decade beginning in 2010, and all but three would be funded entirely by NASA.

Mind the gap

The number of earth-observing missions could drop by a third between 2006 and 2010, if funding continues at expected levels. The loss of existing capabilities would leave scientists without data to feed models of climate change perhaps leaving us unprepared to face future climate shifts.

In response, the report recommends restoring several key elements of America's Earth-observing capability, including the boost to NASA, which has been cutting back on Earth-observing missions to make room for other programmes. Some of the recommendations involve flying follow-up versions of current spacecraft, such as the ICESat mission to measure ice-sheet height and the GRACE gravity mission to monitor long-term changes in water distribution.

The panellists also recommended restoring instruments to the multi-agency National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), currently due to be ready for launch in 2013. Last summer, citing cost overruns, project managers slashed, among other things, instruments that would measure wind direction and sea-surface temperature. But such measurements are critical to understanding and predicting global weather phenomena such as El Niño, the committee says.

Across fields

Others in the community praise the panel's work. "This is groundbreaking," says Marcia McNutt, president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. She notes that, for the first time, the survey brought together scientists from different subfields and made them agree on mutually useful sets of satellites. That strategy of "killing a couple of birds with one stone" will help save money in the long run, she says.

Ultimately, she hopes that the study will help make the case for increased funding in the beleaguered Earth-observing community. "This report is not being overly ambitious," she says. "All they're trying to do is get back to a healthy Earth science programme."

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