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NASA shelves climate satellites, Environmental science may suffer

by: Beth Daley    9 June 2006

NASA is canceling or delaying a number of satellites designed to give scientists critical information on the earth's changing climate and environment.

The space agency has shelved a $200 million satellite mission headed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor that was designed to measure soil moisture -- a key factor in helping scientists understand the impact of global warming and predict droughts and floods. The Deep Space Climate Observatory, intended to observe climate factors such as solar radiation, ozone, clouds, and water vapor more comprehensively than existing satellites, also has been canceled.

And in its 2007 budget, NASA proposes significant delays in a global precipitation measuring mission to help with weather predictions, as well as the launch of a satellite designed to increase the timeliness and accuracy of severe weather forecasts and improve climate models.

The changes come as NASA prioritizes its budget to pay for completion of the International Space Station and the return of astronauts to the moon by 2020 -- a goal set by President Bush that promises a more distant and arguably less practical scientific payoff. Ultimately, scientists say, the delays and cancellations could make hurricane predictions less accurate, create gaps in long-term monitoring of weather, and result in less clarity about the earth's hydrological systems, which play an integral part in climate change.

``Today, when the need for information about the planet is more important than ever, this process of building understanding through increasingly powerful observations . . . is at risk of collapse," said Berrien Moore III, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire.

Moore is cochairman of a National Research Council committee that will recommend NASA's future earth science agenda later this year. It is unclear, however, whether NASA will follow those recommendations.

``NASA has canceled, scaled back, or delayed all of the planned earth observing missions," he said.

Despite NASA's best-known role as a space agency, one of its key missions is to study the earth. Scientists collect data through ground- and space-based observatories using instruments that can sense heat and through which they can see with exquisite detail from many miles up. In recent years, these missions have increased in importance and visibility as global temperatures rise and scientists rush to better understand the phenomenon and the role of humans in it.

While NASA is proposing similarly deep cuts to other important science programs such as astrobiology -- the search for life in space -- the earth science mission cancellations and delays take on greater significance, some scientists say, given recent allegations by a top NASA researcher and other government scientists that the Bush administration tried to silence their warnings about global warming.

While scientists interviewed for this story said they do not believe the earth science cuts are a deliberate attempt to stall science on climate change, they say it comes at a time when more research, not less, is needed. NASA's earth science budget also has sustained a prior round of cuts during the last two years.

NASA, which projects its budget five years out, intends to cut the overall science budget about $3.1 billion below program projections over that time. In 2004, the overall science budget was projected to grow from about $5.5 billion to about $7 billion in 2008. The new projections provide for $5.38 billion in 2008, and less than the cost of inflation after that, according to a report issued last month by the Space Studies Board, a National Research Council committee charged with analyzing NASA's science program. The exact amount of cuts to earth science programs could not be determined because they are not listed separately in the budget proposal.

A NASA earth science official acknowledged that the proposed earth science cuts are steep, and said the agency is attempting to replace some of the funding. He noted the satellite data are used by other agencies, from the military to the US Department of Agriculture. But given competing priorities, there is little chance all the money will be replaced, he said.

``Right now, we are going through the program carefully looking for efficiencies to restore some of these cuts," Bryant Cramer, acting director of NASA's earth science division, said in an interview. ``We are keenly aware of the shortfall, of the necessary research that should be funded, and we are trying to respond. I can't tell you a solution yet."

Almost every planned earth studying mission, all that have some contribution to understanding global warming, has been affected. The $100 million Deep Space Climate Observatory , already built, was canceled earlier this year. First proposed by then-Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s, the satellite was planned to give researchers a continuous picture of the sunlit surface of the earth and allow the first direct measurements of how much sunlight is absorbed and emitted, key information that could serve as an indicator of global warming.

The Global Precipitation Measurement mission, designed to record rain, snow, and ice fall more accurately, has been delayed 2 1/2 years. It is meant to replace another satellite whose mission was extended last year. Now, scientists do not believe the older satellite will last until the Global Precipitation mission is launched, creating a big gap in data collection for weather prediction and climate modeling.

Another key satellite, the $10 billion National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, is over budget and has been delayed at least 18 months. And while NASA previously told earth scientists to start developing proposals for other earth-centered missions to be chosen in 2004, no such round of proposals will be analyzed until 2008.

Scientists at area universities say that they are worried most about a proposed 20 percent cut to research and analysis in the earth science budget, which funds smaller-scale projects. Many of these projects analyze data from satellites and help with long-term monitoring of earth systems. The cuts also may have a chilling effect on attracting and retaining university scientists, who realize their research could be only partially funded -- or not at all.

``Missions can be delayed a year or two, but the most urgent issue right now is to restore the cuts to research and analysis," said Ronald G. Prinn, director of the Center for Global Change Science at MIT. ``We need to understand the climate system much better than we do."

NASA's earth science program was fairly robust until about two years ago, when several missions were canceled or delayed -- a situation that has made the current round of cuts all the more painful, scientists said. Last month, a report by the Space Studies Board concluded that the space and earth science program is neither robust nor sustainable.

``There is a widespread sense that earth sciences has been suffering more than its fair share," said Drew Shindell, a physicist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.