NASA successfully launched its new Landsat satellite on Monday, ensuring that the U.S. government will continue its ability to keep a close eye on environmental change from space, from receding glaciers, deforestation and coastal erosion to natural disasters.
We noted the importance of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission in our August 2011 policy brief, Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security:
The health of the Landsat program, which provides information on topics from land use change to urbanization, is a top concern. One of the two remaining Landsat satellites is past its expected lifespan, and the other has declining capabilities. One replacement satellite, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, has a planned launch date in 2012. The achievement of this mission and its successors is necessary to ensure that one of the most accomplished U.S. satellite programs, spanning nearly four decades, is not lost.
A report in The San Francisco Gate explained the satellite’s important functions and role in generating remote sensing data:
The newest Landsat is equipped with sensors that are more powerful than its predecessors. Once it reaches 440 miles above Earth, the satellite will zip around the planet 14 times a day, snapping hundreds of pictures that will be beamed back to ground stations in South Dakota, Alaska and Norway.
After a three-month checkout period, day-to-day operations will be turned over to the U.S. Geological Survey, which intends to make images and data free on the Internet as in previous Landsat missions. NASA developed the spacecraft and its two instruments.
Learn more about the Landsat Data Continuity Mission at NASA.gov.
While the United States should make better use of space technologies to advance U.S. interests (particularly for improving U.S. disaster warning and response, as I argued this week in a new policy brief Sentries in the Sky: Using Space Technologies for Disaster Response), ground-based sensors will continue to be important for providing a holistic view of environmental, climate change and other important global trends that can affect U.S. security. The U.S. government needs a suite of tools that include ground- and space-based remote sensing technologies, not one or the other.
In this photo taken on September 4, 2012, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute prepares to launch its research vessel with these buoys that will help scientists measure saline concentrations at sea. According to NASA, “The NASA-sponsored expedition will sail to the North Atlantic's saltiest spot to get a detailed, 3-D picture of how salt content fluctuates in the ocean's upper layers and how these variations are related to shifts in rainfall patterns around the planet.”
This type of expedition can help advance scientists’ understanding of ocean chemistry, which may help improve climate modeling that can provide security practitioners more actionable data about the impact of global climate change on particular regions.
Photo: Courtesy of Bill Ingalls and NASA.
Yesterday, CNAS released a new policy brief exploring how the United States can make better use of space technologies to improve disaster warning and response.
Sentries in the Sky: Using Space Technologies for Disaster Response explores some of the challenges with sustaining America’s disaster warning and response services by relying solely on ground-bases sensors to collect information about natural disasters and other events that could threaten U.S. communities. Alternatively, space technologies – which have not yet reached their full potential in disaster warning and response services – can complement existing ground-based sensors by combining new modes of data collection and delivery from space to improve the ability of first responders and others charged with protecting the United States to respond to natural and man-made disasters.
The policy brief focuses specifically on advancing tsunami detection through space-based services as just one of many ways that space technologies can advance disaster warning and response capabilities. But despite this narrow focus on tsunami detection, the policy brief is intended to encourage policymakers and others to think more creatively about ways to leverage space technologies to enhance U.S. national security missions, particularly unconventional (but increasingly important) missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The policy brief builds on a broader body of work at the center on the role of Earth monitoring satellites in national security and foreign policy making. In August 2011, Christine Parthemore and I published Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security. More to come from us in this research area.
Photo: An artist concept of the Ocean Surface Topography Mission/Jason 2 Earth satellite. Courtesy of NASA.
One of the research areas that we at CNAS have been exploring for the last several years is how the United States can make better use of satellites to enhance its understanding of the environment and the potential security consequences of environmental and climate change. In August 2010, for example, Christine Parthemore and I published a study exploring the decline of America’s Earth monitoring satellite capability and its implications for U.S. national security (See Blinded).
Our research has taken us to new areas of exploration, including how the United States can make better use of satellites to respond to natural disasters and provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). Given that climate change could portend a future that may demand increased support from the United States to conduct HA/DR missions, it behooves national security policymakers to identify what tools and techniques the United States should have to adequately respond to future disasters.
Although not linked to climate change, tsunamis are an area that has drawn our attention as of late, especially in the wake of the March 2011 disaster in Japan. With demographic trends in Asia suggesting that more people are moving to coastal communities in seismically active regions (i.e, the Pacific Ring of Fire), more people could be vulnerable to earthquake-induced tsunamis. How should the United States think about ways to enhance its tsunami early warning system that can provide forewarning to coastal residents? NOAA’s Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) program that relies on a set of floating buoys to provide accurate readouts of tsunamis is facing budget cuts. As a result, the United States may actually be trimming back a critical capability that could be of greater demand in the future.
Could satellites offer an opportunity to enhance tsunami early warning systems that are cost effective and provide efficient notice to vulnerable communities? Potentially. Some of the existing (and interesting) proposals are still largely in research and development, so it is unclear of their costs when brought to scale, but they could potentially make good use of satellite systems to provide better information about an earthquake’s magnitude and the potential size of any tsunami generated by the seismic event – information that is critical to improving evacuation notices and determining the extent of the evacuation zone.
On Monday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden provided an overview briefing on NASA's fiscal year 2013 budget. As I noted earlier this week, NASA’s budget request includes $1.8 billion for the Earth sciences program, which includes crucial satellite systems that measure environmental and climate change. “With this budget we continue to refine and demonstrate technologies that will increase our nation's capabilities,” Administrator Bolden said. The budget request supports more than 80 science missions, he added, including those “that cover the vital data we need to understand our own planet.”
As I highlighted in my post on Wednesday, NASA’s budget overview states that of the 11 operating missions under the Earth Systematic Missions program, 10 systems are beyond their design life. While NASA’s budget request ensures funding to extend many of these missions, policymakers need to be prepared to make investments in next generation Earth monitoring systems that will continue to provide the United States with the information needed to understand the pace and manifestation of long-term environmental and climate change.
Photo: Courtesy of Bill Ingalls and NASA.
The U.S. government’s fleet of Earth monitoring satellite systems is something that is near and dear to our hearts here in the natural security program. President Obama’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 budget request to Congress seems to reflect the continued interest in Earth observation satellite systems, which we have argued are crucial for U.S. national security planners trying to understand the pace and manifestation of environmental and climate change.
The president’s FY 2013 NASA budget includes a $24.3 million dollar increase in Earth sciences over the FY 2012 estimate, totaling about $1.8 billion. The NASA justification notes why the Earth sciences program is important, explaining that “From space, NASA satellites can view Earth as a planet and enable its study as a complex, dynamic system with diverse components: the oceans, atmosphere, continents, ice sheets, and life itself.” Among the systems expected to be funded include the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), which will see an additional $36.7 million in funding, totaling $157.2 million. ICESat is particularly useful for taking measurements of ice sheet mass, including of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.
The Obama administration has requested funds to support the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, which is slated to continue the Landsat program that has for four decades provided information on topics from land use change to urbanization used by planners from USAID to the Defense Department. Although the Landsat Data Continuity Mission reflects a decrease in funding between FY 2012 and FY 2013, from $159.3 million to $54.7 million, the reduced funding I suspect reflects the launch of the satellite system into orbit in January 2013, with smaller operational costs thereafter.
Earlier this week, NASA announced the findings of a University of Colorado-Boulder study that used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite to measure the ice loss of Earth’s land ice (glaciers and ice caps) between 2003 and 2010. According to a NASA news release, “One unexpected study result from GRACE was the estimated ice loss from high Asian mountain ranges like the Himalaya, the Pamir and the Tien Shan was only about 4 billion tons of ice annually.” The report added that “Some previous ground-based estimates of ice loss in these high Asian mountains have ranged up to 50 billion tons annually.” The results from the study point to the importance of Earth monitoring satellite systems for understanding environmental and climate change, particularly for national security planners trying to determine the pace of change and its sociopolitical and security implications.
Learn more about our work on Earth monitoring systems and national security planning here.
Photo: Rendering of measurements taken from NASA’s GRACE satellite system (excluding Greenland and Antarctica). Blue indicates ice mass loss, while red indicates a gain. Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Colorado.
The Defense Science Board’s new report, Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and International Security, is getting some good traction. As I promised in my lengthy post on Tuesday, I’m continuing to mine the report to pull out the most interesting findings and recommendations.
What is interesting (and certainly a welcomed message) is the report’s recommendation to bolster U.S. civilian satellite programs that generate environmental and climate data. According to the authors, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) should, “Work with the National Aeronautical and Space Administration [NASA] to conduct a renewed study of options for increasing the availability of low-cost, high-reliability launch vehicles for civil science satellites critical for climate observations.”
The recommendation comes at a time when America’s declining earth monitoring satellite capability is raising concerns that the United States is quickly approaching a capability gap that could hamper our ability to understand near- and long-term changes to the environment, including their implications for U.S. national security. In August, Christine Parthemore and I wrote in Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security that “By 2016, only seven of NASA’s current 13 earth monitoring satellites are expected to be operational, leaving a crucial information gap that will hinder national security planning,” and that losing satellite-based earth monitoring capabilities will affect U.S. national security, given that DOD, USAID, the State Department and others rely on the information generated by those satellites for crucial planning purposes.
Early Friday morning, NASA successfully launched the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project – or NPP – from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The NPP is a stopgap solution to NASA’s ailing Earth monitoring satellite program. Popular Mechanics reported on the launch and what it means for bridging the U.S. climate science gap: “As NASA’s three current polar orbiters—Terra, Aqua, and Aura—near the end of their operational lifetimes, the experimental NPP satellite is thrust into the role of providing data critical to both short-term weather forecasting and long-term climate science.”
The NPP’s successful launch on Friday is a positive step forward in the still long road to developing a more robust satellite-based Earth and climate monitoring program. Christine Parthemore and I wrote about this issue in a policy brief released in August, Blinded: The Decline of U.S. Earth Monitoring Capabilities and Its Consequences for National Security. In our policy brief, we noted that the NPP’s predecessor program, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS), was symbolic of the challenges compounding this gap in Earth and climate monitoring satellites:
One recent interagency effort to close such gaps has fallen short. The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was designed to translate climate and environmental data (including data from extensive existing databases) into products and analysis for DOD, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However, after long delays, cost overruns and inadequate coordination among the partners in the interagency working group, the project was split into two components (as an alternative to being cancelled completely)…
NPP is NASA’s and NOAA’s component project; DOD is currently working on its own.
The India Space Research Organization (ISRO) successfully launched three satellites into orbit on Wednesday: ResourceSat-2 and two nano-satellites, YouthSat and X-Sat. The payloads were launched from the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle-C16, the 17th consecutive successful launch from the PSLV after it failed during its first launch in 1993.
ResourceSat-2 is the follow on mission to ResourceSat-1, an ISRO satellite launched in 2003 that was expected to have a mission life of 5-7 years. As a remote sensing satellite, ResourceSat-2 is equipped with three cameras that provide higher resolution images than its predecessor. In addition, it will carry an experimental instrument built by the Canadian based company, COMDEV, which will provide ship surveillance (including the speed and position of vessels on Earth).
The mission objective for ResourceSat-2 is nearly identical to ResourceSat-1, which focused on providing data on natural resources, including water and agricultural as well as climate studies. In explaining ResourceSat-2’s mission, ISRO Chairman K Radhakrishnan said that it will “monitor natural resources at different resolutions. It can be used to monitor snow cover, glacier changes, urban landscape and others.”
In addition, India has touted ResourceSat-2 as a satellite that will provide useful data to the international community when it begins transmitting on April 28. The Times of India reported yesterday that data from ResourceSat-2 will be shared among 15 countries. Similarly, in discussing the new satellite, R.R. Navalgund, director of the Space Applications Centre (which is a major component of ISRO) said, “You can collect data from the entire globe. So, there will be a great demand for this kind of data which is available from the Resourcesat-2…. It will become the workhorse for monitoring the resources of the entire earth for the global community.”