March 06, 2011

This Weekend's News: We All Fall Short from Glory

The biggest natural security news of the weekend was actually hardly mentioned in the weekend’s papers. On Friday morning, NASA’s new satellite to collect climate data, Glory, failed to reach orbit and crashed into the ocean. This is a sad repeat of a 2009 incident in which a carbon-monitoring satellite failed to reach orbit as well. In both cases, the failure was due to a malfunctioning of the Taurus XL rocket created by Orbital Sciences.

My heart sank with Glory’s failure. First and foremost, it feels like a sign of weakness for our country. We were the first to land men on the moon, and we can’t even get these earth monitoring satellites into orbit? Second, it’s hard to underscore how dramatically better data can help us understand the changing climate – and the effects of these changes on our security, development and foreign policy goals. To boot, Taurus was also carrying a series of CubeSats, small satellites primarily designed by universities as a proof of concept that you don't have to have a behemoth budget to design and field a good research satellite. Though our readers are a cut above normal on these issues, we’ve seen from our recent project examining remote sensing capabilities that far too many people – even people without our own government who use the data from these types of satellites – don’t know that the information they are using for planning is actually from a satellite.

This morning, then, I thought I’d point to a specific example of why satellites like Glory are so important. To give you a glimpse of what these systems can do, check out how USAID is employing remote sensing to improve our knowledge of conditions in Afghanistan. The Famine Early Warning System tracks precipitation and other conditions required for agricultural productivity so that it can foresee looming problems, and puts out food security assessments like this one. At best, we can compare data collected by satellites like the late Glory and compare it to on-the-ground field reporting to get the fullest picture possible of conditions in countries like Afghanistan.  If someone would like to argue that it’s not strategically important for our country to be developing these capabilities, I’d love to hear it.

In other news, China is set to release its new Five-Year Plan. According to the People’s Daily, “China on Saturday announced goals of building 235 million kilowatts of power generation capacity from clean energy forms in the next five years,” using a combo of nuclear, wind, hydro and solar power. According to The New York Times, China’s energy plans also include improving efficiency and doubling its use of natural gas. Stay tuned, as this week we’ll be looking at how the new plan treats minerals and other major resource issues.

Next, as oil prices continue to rise, be sure to check our daily news feed for updates we think are important. But this weekend showed once again that (in my opinion) Forbes is doing some of the best coverage and analysis of how events in the Middle East and North Africa are affecting energy markets. Here, for example, is a piece on Saudi production.

Finally, in my favorite news item of last week, Fox News and its parent company have gone carbon neutral. Hopefully that note helps you kick off a good week.

The Week Ahead

This week’s events are more “natural” than “security” but still look good. On Tuesday at 8:00 a.m. the National Journal is hosting an event entitled, “Clean Energy Solutions for a Growing Economy.” At 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, go to the Wilson Center for “Green Governance Victories and Ongoing Challenges in China.” Then at 11:00, go to the Elliot School for a discussion on “The Promotion of Sustainable Mining and Energy Activities in Peru.” At 12:30, SAIS is hosting an event titled, “Going Green in a Crowded, Carbon-Constrained World.” On Thursday at 5:00 p.m., go to the Society for International Development for “Greening the Way: New Technology Helps Mexico Keep Climate Change Commitments.”