Science

Weather Satellite Crisis: Budget Cuts And Old Equipment Threaten Our Eyes In The Sky

By Sean Kane , Mar 12, 2013 01:21 PM EDT

Are we going to lose our weather forecasts?

Due to satellites aging and government spending cuts, Earth's weather-tracking capabilities may be greatly diminished.

We currently have 24 Earth-observing satellites in orbit around our planet. Some are geostationary. They fly about 22,300 miles away from Earth, and their orbital periods matches Earth's, keeping them locked over one part of the planet, allowing a satellite to watch one part of our world at all times. Despite their constant surveillance, they're too far away for any great detail. One example are the GOES weather satellites: The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites produce the stuttering images of clouds moving over us that we see in weather reports.

On the other end of the spectrum are polar orbiting satellites. These fly only 500 miles above the surface, circling the planet every 100 minutes. They can cover the entire Earth twice in one day, imaging the day and night.

"The polar orbiting satellites give the ability to do long term weather forecasts," Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told PBS. "Currently, NOAA's forecasts go out 7 to 10 days. If we don't have a polar orbiting satellite, we would do 2 to 3 day forecasts. That's a huge difference."

We've been continuously watching our American weather since 1960, when we launched the TIROS satellite into low-Earth orbit. But in the coming years, we may lose this ability, due to aging satellites that won't be replaced.

Much of the problem goes back to 1994. Having watched the Soviet Union collapse three years earlier, the federal government was looking to cut spending now that the Cold War was over, and an order from President Clinton merged the weather satellite systems of the Department of Defense and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The plan was to trim hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget, but instead, the merging of NASA, NOAA and the Air Force was fraught with problems, from an Air Force officer heading the program with no space experience, to delays on complicated sensors. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) that was to be the result of this partnership was canceled and the project dissolved in February of 2010 into a DoD system and one from NOAA/NASA. The DoD project was canceled in January 2012 and the NOAA/NASA satellite's launch has been pushed back to 2017.

Meanwhile, our other satellites are getting old. Those 24 satellites in Earth-orbit? By the end of the decade, only six are expected to still be working, and that's considering some satellites have long surpassed their planned lifetimes. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite was planned for a five-year lifetime, but it's been up there for 11 years.

Add to that two failed launches recently (the Orbital Carbon Observatory and Glory satellites), and the mere six launches planned for 2014-2020, and we're still not keeping up with the rate that our weather satellites are dying.

"We are in a precarious position," Berrien Moore, director of the National Weather Center, told PBS. "I honestly believe we have become complacent about our infrastructure. I understand we've got huge budget issues, but these are fundamental things we ought to be doing. Weather waits for no man."

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