Third time's the charm. Climate and weather researchers are breathing a bit easier today with this morning's successful launch  of a NASA satellite that will provide data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project  (NPP) satellite lifted off at 2:48 a.m. local time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, breaking a string of failed launches that downed two previous Earth-observing satellites.
NPP carries five science instruments designed to help researchers track everything from the ozone layer to ice cover, and to help them develop both long- and short-term forecasts. It is also supposed to test-drive technologies for NOAA's pending Joint Polar Satellite System  (JPSS), a multi-spacecraft system plagued with technical delays and budget problems. The first JPSS launch is not expected until 2016 or 2017 at the earliest, and the $12 billion program has gotten extensive scrutiny  from budget-conscious lawmakers .
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has warned that skimping on funding for JPSS will leave scientists with fewer tools to collect critical data, and she used the NPP launch as an opportunity to talk up the need for the new satellites. "This year has been one for the record books for severe weather," she said in a statement. "The need for improved data from NPP and the next generation satellite system … has never been greater."
The launch of the $1.5 billion NPP—which was originally supposed to fly in 2006represents a rare bright spot for the U.S. Earth-observing community. In 2009, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory, designed to monitor carbon dioxide levels, crashed back to Earth after its rocket failed, and earlier this year a similar accident destroyed NASA's Glory, designed to monitor atmospheric chemicals. NPP is expected to operate for at least 5 years.