October 31, 2011

This Weekend’s News: Bridging the Earth Monitoring Gap One Step at a Time

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
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

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 NPP of course is not without its own set of challenges.
As Christine and I wrote back in August:

NASA is on track to launch the NPP in October 2011, a recent report from NASA’s
Office of the Inspector General found that key instruments aboard the NPP are
projected to have a much shorter lifespan than the planned mission
. Those
instruments include crucial infrared capabilities that will provide data on
wildfires, ice cover in the Arctic, ocean temperatures and atmospheric conditions
– valuable information that will allow security practitioners and other
policymakers to make informed decisions about issues ranging from the Arctic to
treaty verification.

It is unclear how many of these instrument deficiencies the
program’s designers corrected before sending the NPP into orbit. NPP program
manager Ken Schwer told Popular Mechanics
that, "Everything
about NPP is new. The instruments are new, the spacecraft is new
." Popular Mechanics added that “the
NPP satellite will also be able to provide better data because of its more
advanced array of equipment. NPP carries five new observational tools to
monitor the planet’s moisture, air, and sea temperatures, take images in both
the visual and infrared spectrums, and monitor the ever-fluctuating ozone hole
over the Antarctic. Those instruments all image in higher resolution than the
ones on board the old EOS satellites

Whatever the case, the NPP will provide significant value to NASA’s ailing Earth
monitoring program. Popular Mechanics
reports that, “NPP’s
biggest contribution might be in improving climate and weather prediction
algorithms. Like the previous Earth observing satellites, NPP will carry the
Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) to track the heat
retention in our atmosphere. That, along with NPP’s new tools and its
continuation of NASA’s effort to collect long-term climate data, means the new
satellite will help to provide an ever-clearer picture of the planet’s changing
.” So even if the NPP is a stopgap solution, it is a welcome
addition to the climate research field. But it certainly should not be the last

This Week’s Events

Today at 9 AM, head to Carnegie for a discussion on California’s
Performance-Based Policy Model for Transportation, Energy, and Climate: Lessons
. Also at 9 AM, Brookings will host The
Role of Distributed Power Systems in the U.S. Electricity Sector
. At 1:30
PM, head to George Mason University for The
Battle Over Climate Change Policies
. At 5:45 PM, the Austrian Embassy will
host a discussion on Global Energy
Perspectives - Decarbonization and Efficiency Revolution

On Tuesday at 8:30 AM, head to the Center for Global Development for a primer
on Climate
Treaties and Approaching Catastrophes
. At 12:15 PM, the University of
Maryland will host an event on Floating in Oil and
Natural Gas: The New Energy Abundance and Implications for U.S. Energy Policy
At 2:15 PM, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on China’s
Role In Africa: Implications

On Wednesday at 12:00 PM, the Environmental Law Institute
will discuss Managing
Threatened and Endangered Marine Species in the Face of Climate Change

On Thursday at 9 AM, The Washington Post will hold a
discussion on Smart
.  At 12:15 PM, head over to
the University of Maryland for Water
is Rising: Climate Change and Culture in the South Pacific and Chesapeake Bay
At 4 PM, the World Resources Institute will host Climate
Change, Transparency & Accountability: Launch and Discussion of the
"2011 Global Corruption Report"
. Head to Georgetown University at
6 PM for Carbon
Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil

Finally, on Friday at 8:30 AM, head to the Foreign Policy
Research Institute for Contested
Terrain: China's Periphery and International Relations in Asia
. At 12:30
PM, SAIS will host Energy and
Security in South Asia: Cooperation or Conflict?