From: Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters
Published May 3, 2007 12:00 AM

U.S. Environment Satellites in Jeopardy, Scientists Say

WASHINGTON -- Environmental satellites that monitor global warming are in jeopardy because of cost cuts, as military and human spaceflight programs get larger shares of the U.S. budget, a science policy expert said Wednesday.


"Environmental research and development has been hit particularly hard over the last few years ... The satellite capability that's projected over the next few years looks pretty bleak," said Kei Koizumi, an expert on science budget policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Budget cuts will mean that some existing satellites won't be replaced when they reach the end of their lifespans and some other planned satellite launches have been canceled.


Earth-observing satellites watch for oncoming storms and forecast daily weather as well as looking for signs of global warming and other phenomena. Weather forecasters who rely on their data would also be affected by any gaps in service.


This week, scientists using NASA's Aura satellite reported the Arctic ice cap is melting about three times faster than computer models suggested.


Koizumi said the squeeze on environmental-observation programs, including those that watch from Earth's surface as well as those in space, is part of an overall reduction in money for domestic programs in the proposed 2008 budget.


"In the overall budget, Congress and the president have so far reduced domestic spending as the primary way of reducing the deficit," Koizumi said by telephone. "And clearly they have not reduced military spending. In fact it keeps growing, primarily because the cost of our war keeps increasing ...


"There are several ways to try to control a budget deficit and policy makers so far have chosen one way, which directly impacts many of these civilian research programs," he said.


LESS MONEY FOR CLIMATE CHANGE SCIENCE


One example is the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, where funding dropped from $2 billion as recently as 2004 to $1.5 billion in the proposed 2008 budget, Koizumi said.


Koizumi's comments were in line with a statement released this week by the science association's board.


"The network of satellites upon which the United States and the world have relied for indispensable observations of Earth from space is in jeopardy," the board said. "Declines will result in major gaps in the continuity and quality of the data gathered about the Earth from space."


The U.S. National Research Council came to the same conclusion in an earlier analysis which found U.S. global observations of the environment are "at great risk," and that the next generation of Earth-observing satellites will be "generally less capable" than the current ones.


The subject was touched on Wednesday at a House hearing on NASA's space science programs and the Bush administration's proposed 2008 budget.


Witnesses at the hearing acknowledged that the lion's share of NASA's budget is meant to pay to develop spacecraft to replace the shuttle fleet, slated for retirement in 2010, and to finish construction of the International Space Station.


Lennard Fisk, a former NASA official now on the National Research Council's Space Studies Board, warned that the number of Earth observation missions -- which he linked directly to the pace of scientific discovery -- is slipping from about seven missions a year in the mid-1990s to about five now and less than two missions annually by 2010.


Fisk called this downward trend "clearly unacceptable" in the field of Earth observation: "In Earth science, society is demanding to know the consequences of global climate change in order to plan our future."


Source: Reuters


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