U.S. could lose aging eyes in the sky

Thermal images of water use around Las Cruces, New Mexico, from the Landsat 7 satellite.

Story highlights

  • Tights budgets, growing costs and failed launches hurt satellite programs, report finds
  • "We'll be hobbling through the year 2012," Idaho scientist says
  • Nearly three-quarters of 23 Earth-observation satellites could go dark by 2020
  • NASA calls the report "overly pessimistic"
About every two weeks, Rick Allen gets a series of thermal snapshots from high above Earth that show how water gets used across the western United States, a perennial source of friction in the largely arid region.
"We see all of the cold spots, which are irrigated fields," said Allen, the director of the Water Resources Research Program at the University of Idaho. "We take the relative temperatures and transform that into an equivalent of an amount of water used in cubic feet per acre per day, or cubic meters, or inches of depth. We can transform that information into types of units that are used by water managers and state agencies to manage water consumption."
The stream of data that Allen dips into has been flowing since 1984, when NASA's Landsat 5 satellite went into orbit. Landsat 5 finally shut down in November, and it successor, Landsat 7, beams back a set of images of Allen's region to the U.S. Geological Survey every 16 days -- but because of a faulty scanner, they come in with black streaks across them. A replacement is being readied for launch, but it's unlikely to make it aloft before January.
"We'll be hobbling through the year 2012 using only Landsat 7 with incomplete imagery," Allen said. "That's really hurting us badly."
Scientist Rick Allen monitors water use with satellite imagery.
 NASA's Glory satellite before its failed March 2011 launch.
It's a problem facing other scientists as well, as a combination of budget pressure, program delays and a pair of launch failures leaves the United States facing a "rapid decline" in its fleet of Earth-science satellites, the National Academy of Sciences warns. Of 23 such satellites now aloft -- carrying dozens of instruments that help weather forecasters produce storm warnings and measure pollution, ocean winds and sea levels -- only six are expected to remain in operation by 2020, and efforts to replace them have stalled, the National Research Council reports.
"These precipitous decreases warn of a coming crisis in Earth observations from space, in which our ability to observe and understand the Earth system will decline just as Earth observations are critically needed to underpin important decisions facing our nation and the world," according to a May report from the Academy's National Research Council. "Advances in weather forecast accuracy may slow or even reverse, and gaps in time series of climate and other critical Earth observations are almost certain to occur."
NASA calls the report "overly pessimistic," however. In a statement to CNN, the space agency says many of its satellites have lasted far beyond their expected lifetimes, and that scientists are getting regular data from other countries' probes.
"NASA is developing a set of missions that will both continue critical long-term data records and demonstrate new instruments and measurement approaches for important variables that are not presently being measured from space," it said. "Our research portfolio remains robust."
The NRC report follows up on a 2007 study that recommended a list of 17 satellite missions for the next decade. But Dennis Hartmann, who led the committee that produced t