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NASA Satellite Crash Complicates Gloomy Climate Budget Picture

8 March 2011 5:38 pm
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Last week's failed mission to place the $424 million Glory satellite into orbit doesn't just stymie scientists' efforts to maintain a 33-year record of the sun's brightness and discern the role of aerosol particles in the atmosphere. It's a blow to an already shaky and likely underfunded effort to revamp the troubled U.S. remote observation system.

The issue is a crowded to-do list and increased pressure from Congress to cut the budget. NASA has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a number of key environmental satellite missions still on the ground, so it's likely those missions will fly eventually. They include the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO-II) mission to track carbon dioxide flows and the LDCM satellite to maintain observations of Earth's surface (both planned for a 2013 launch), as well as ICESat-2, which monitors the melting poles, scheduled for 2016. But NASA needs hundreds of millions more to finish work on some of them, including nearly $500 million for ICESat-2.

Glory's failure exacerbates both the scientific and the fiscal problems facing NASA. The collection of aerosol data represented novel and important science. The solar brightness mission, however, is as close to a must-do as it gets in all of climate science. Solar brightness measures the total energy added to the Earth system, which is needed for estimating global warming from greenhouse gases. Maintaining a record started by a 1978 mission requires calibration between satellites that overlap during their flights.

But NASA can't just put a Glory-II mission at the end of its calendar and hope for the best. The current craft measuring brightness is 3 years beyond its working life, and another is not expected until 2015. So NASA may try to push that date up.

The desired launch dates presume that Congress will approve the president's request to grow the agency's budget for Earth science in the next 4 years—from $1.8 billion to $2.3 billion by 2015. That may be wrong. Given the budget pressure, the $1.9 billion that President Barack Obama requested for the 2012 fiscal year "is the high point," speculates NASA earth science budget expert Art Charo of the National Academies' National Research Council.

In particular, the House of Representatives has already approved cutting NASA's budget for the rest of 2011 by $600 million. Senate Democrats have said they want to cut it by $200 million. Neither has yet specified how the cut should be distributed across the agency's $18.7 billion budget. But in recent years, the earth science budget has gotten its lunch eaten by the manned spaceflight program. Given the animosity in the House toward anything that has the word "climate" in its name, it's hard to see any change in that dynamic.

The crash of OCO in 2009 has already led to some brutal triage. To set up OCO-II, NASA was forced to cut other missions. In the 2012 budget rollout last month, for example, NASA announced it wished to curtail plans to launch CLARREO—a four-satellite constellation to measure tiny fluctuations in reflected energy from Earth, and DESDynI, a $1.6 billion mission to scan ice.

The delays would essentially scrap both missions. "They've decided to basically reduce the funding greatly to these two missions and put them on the side of the road," Rick Anthes, retiring president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, told Space.com. "I think that strategy at least makes sense. If you don't have enough money to do everything, cancel some of them or put some of them on indefinite hold and continue making good progress on the others."

Anthes said he is unhappy with these decisions but recognizes they are part of the price of building a replacement for the original OCO craft, which crashed aboard the same type of rocket that wrecked Glory. From ClimateWire (subs req):

NASA's decision to build and launch a copy of the failed Orbiting Carbon Observatory has taken money away from other key Earth and climate satellite missions, [Anthes] said, and the loss of Glory could compound that problem.

Now scientists are worried about the fate of NASA's Earth-science satellites for the next decade, including a trio planned for 2020 launches: PACE, which would analyze ocean color; SWOT, which would survey global surface water; and ASCENDS, which would closely survey CO2 emissions.

According to climate scientist Tony Busalacchi of the University of Maryland, College Park, the lack of a backup plan for Glory reflects the absence of a governmentwide strategic plan for collecting environmental data from space. "We're always, in some sense, dealing with these things in a one-off way," he says. From the ClimateWire story, focusing on Glory's TIM instrument that measures brightness:

Experts said NASA has at least three options to avert a potential data gap. [Greg Kopp of the University of Colorado lab that designed TIM] said the agency could assemble spare parts for a new version of TIM and fly a replacement instrument on a satellite already under construction. That could be done in less than two years if NASA can identify a probe to host the TIM replacement.

Meanwhile, Erik Richard [of the same lab] said NASA could opt to accelerate its planned launch of the instrument designed to replace Glory's TIM. Richard said his lab will finish building that instrument by the end of 2012, although it's not expected to be sent into space until 2015. "Since it's early with the Glory failure, there may be a lot of shuffling," he said.

Science Insider has asked NASA what the agency will do first to decide its next steps on solar brightness.

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