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Winter/Spring 2007 Vol. 7 No. 1



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©Leo Kundas/Images.com A New Look at Planet Earth -- From Space


By 2010, 40 percent of the scientific instruments on U.S. satellites that collect environmental data are expected to stop working, which will lead to a dramatic loss of information needed to study climate change, predict natural disasters, and monitor shifts in ecosystems.

To prevent this from happening, the U.S. government will have to renew its commitment to earth science research. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should replace aging instruments and develop new ones for the next decade and beyond, says a new report from the National Research Council.

In 2005, the Research Council warned that the national system of environmental satellites was “at risk of collapse.” Since then, there have been further cancellations and delays of NASA missions and dramatic, deleterious changes in plans for the next generation of NOAA meteorological satellites.

The new report recommends that NASA and NOAA undertake a set of 17 missions of different sizes from 2010 to 2020 that would ensure continuity of several key measurements and develop urgently needed new capabilities. These missions and associated programs will underpin an integrated and robust earth information system to address a broad range of societal needs, such as more reliable weather forecasts, early earthquake warnings, and improved pollution management, benefiting both scientific discovery and the health and well-being of society.

The strategy recommended by the report will provide a global view of the Earth’s environment, weather, and climate. However, satellites don’t have the ability to detect changes in how the environment affects populations or vice versa. To help fill this gap, NASA should increase the number of its land-based and airborne programs and pursue socio-demographic studies of how human activities affect the environment. NASA should also create a new Venture class of low-cost missions -- between $100 million and $200 million -- to help foster innovative ideas and test higher-risk technologies, the report says.

The report also discusses a mismatch between agency responsibilities and agency budgets, which has resulted in difficulties that include guaranteeing the continued availability of data from the Landsat spacecraft, a joint initiative of the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA that has provided the best means of examining the relationship between human activities and their terrestrial environment. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy should develop and implement a plan for achieving and sustaining global observations that recognizes the complexity of differing agency roles, responsibilities, and capabilities.   -- Patrice Pages


Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space: A Community Assessment and Strategy for the Future, Space Studies Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2007, approx. 400 pp.; ISBN 0-309-10482-3; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $47.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

Richard A. Anthes, president, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colo., and Berrien Moore III, director, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, University of New Hampshire, Durham, co-chaired the committee. The study was funded by NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey.



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Copyright 2007 by the National Academy of Sciences