Extreme Weather And U.S. Satellites

A polar-orbiting satellite employed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration retired yesterday after 11 years of service. This is more than three times the typical lifespan of these satellites.

Known as the NOAA-17 Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite, it measured air temperature, moisture, sea surface temperature, and image data that helped strengthen NOAA’s climate and weather models. In fact, these satellites provide up to 80 percent of the data for the weather computer models we rely on every day. They are called polar-orbiters because they fly a lower orbit than others, from pole to pole. Mary Kicza, from NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, explained how the data these satellites collect can help us find out more about our planet:

NOAA-17 helped our forecasters see the early development of severe weather from tornadoes and snow storms to hurricanes, including the busiest hurricane season on record — 2005. It also tracked subtle changes in the environment that signaled the onset of drought and wildfire conditions. NOAA-17’s long life is a credit to the engineers who built and operated it and the technology that sustained it. Although we say farewell to NOAA-17, we still operate a dependable fleet of satellites that continue to provide crucial data.

Number 17 was being used as backup for other soon-to-retire satellites (15, 16, 18, and 19). A newer satellite called Suomi NPP was launched in 2011 as the first step in the next generation of polar orbiters: the Joint Polar Satellite System. So the system will continue to operate after Number 17’s retirement party — for now. The next orbiter was planned to launch in 2015, but that will be pushed back to 2017, risking a gap in weather and climate monitoring. This critical satellite program has been orbiting by the seat of its pants for years.

A 2012 report found that the U.S. satellite program was at “risk of collapse” due to a lack of launch capability, budget shortfalls, and aging orbiters. In 2011, the GOP proposed cutting NASA’s budget by $1.2 billion, which would have harmed the satellite program had the cuts taken place. In 2012, they did it again. Sequestration poses additional, longer-term cuts that will diminish the reliability of weather reporting. President Obama’s budget would have NASA take over responsibility of future joint polar orbiters, which would allow NOAA to move up launch dates.

Europe has a polar satellite system, and a partnership with them may provide a solution. The current understanding is that NOAA will be flying one orbital shift (morning) and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) will be flying another (afternoon). The partnership is an attempt to share costs and data.

Another satellite, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, received funding in President Obama’s budget proposal. It has been sitting in storage for more than a decade, after being cancelled after President Bush took office. NASA refurbished its instruments in 2009, but the project has not received enough funding to launch. If given the funding to launch, this satellite would orbit 1 million miles out between the Earth and the Sun, taking a continuous picture of Earth and providing essential climate data. It would also provide an early heads-up of incoming solar storms.

At a time when extreme weather disasters are increasing in frequency and scope, we need a fully-functioning satellite monitoring program. To do otherwise means putting on a blindfold.