The protracted fight over this year's federal budget has left its mark on the nation's climate and weather satellites, experts said yesterday at a conference organized by defense trade publisher IHS Jane's.
Scientists have warned for years that successive rounds of spending cuts have taken their toll on the nation's constellation of Earth-observing satellites. The National Academy of Sciences warned in 2007 that the United States' ability to monitor Earth from space was "at great risk" as the current stable of satellites aged and their replacements were delayed or shelved.
The spending deal hammered out earlier this month by House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House adds to that pain.
This year's budget chopped the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's purse to $4.6 billion for fiscal 2011, $140 million less than the agency received in the 2010 budget cycle.
That has forced the agency to delay the launch of Jason-3, a joint mission with the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites to monitor sea level rise, by one year.
"It is impacted by the FY '11 budget decision," said Mary Kicza, NOAA's assistant administrator for satellite and information services. "The launch has slipped to 2014."
The spending cuts have also scrambled launch plans for the agency's Joint Polar Satellite System, a series of probes that will supply information for weather and climate forecasts. The launch of the program's first satellite, JPSS-1, will be delayed by at least 18 months beyond the original 2016 target.
Creating gaps in weather and climate records
That will leave a gap in some weather and climate records, creating more difficulties for environmental forecasts, severe storm warnings and search-and-rescue operations.
"Right now, we have satellites in orbit," Kicza said. "They are producing important measurements that our modelers are using to provide two-to-five-day weather forecasts and long-term climate forecasts. On the face of things, things don't look broken. But it takes many years to field these systems -- for a complex satellite, on average, it's six to eight years. So you need to make investments now to ensure you don't have a gap in the future."
Satellites have also taken a hit at NASA. The space agency largely evaded lawmakers' budget ax this year, but with another spending fight looming for 2012, the Obama administration did some trimming of its own. The president's fiscal 2012 budget request shelved two climate satellite missions.
The Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) and the Deformation, Ecosystem Structure and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) missions were listed as top priorities by the National Academy of Sciences in its 2007 report on the future of U.S. environmental satellites.
CLARREO was designed to take direct measurements of the amount of solar radiation that enters and leaves Earth's atmosphere -- what scientists refer to as the planet's "energy budget."
A tool needed to verify climate models
"Getting the energy budget right would be a fundamental check on climate models," said Berrien Moore, vice president for weather and climate programs at the University of Oklahoma.
"We had hoped that CLARREO could be on orbit between 2010 and 2013," added Moore, who co-chaired the committee that wrote the 2007 NAS report. "Just before it was canceled, it was going to be for 2019. If you continue to run the cost of these missions up and run the time to launch out, we are not going to do anything."
Still, Michael Freilich, who directs NASA's Earth Science Division, said his agency "got almost everything we requested" in 2011. "What's left in the program is indeed rather robust," he said.
But with fiscal austerity expected to be the watchword for the next few years, Freilich said that scientists and federal agencies should adopt a more pragmatic mindset.
"I think the key to get out of the fix in which we landed ourselves is to be relentlessly objective and realistic about what our budget prospects actually are," he said. "We haven't spent nearly enough time developing the consensuses that say, 'If we only have this amount of resources, here is what we should do.'"
Reporter Dina Fine Maron contributed.