SAN FRANCISCO — Ten years after the National Academies published the first Earth science decadal survey, NASA has flown one of the 15 recommended missions with two more scheduled to launch in 2018.
The first decadal survey mission to reach orbit was Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), a campaign to measure water in topsoil that has been in orbit since 2015. SMAP’s L-band radiometer continues to function, but its onboard radar quit after less than six months due to a faulty amplifier.
Next up are the twin satellites of the U.S.-German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On. The spacecraft, which are designed to circle the Earth in tight formation and detect changes in gravitational pull that reveal higher concentrations of mass, are at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California awaiting a March flight on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket alongside five Iridium Next communications satellites.
In September, NASA plans to launch Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, to monitor ice sheets, sea ice and glaciers, on the last Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg.
It’s not surprising that NASA has made little progress flying missions recommended in the 2007 report, “Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond.” When it was published, NASA leaders including then-Administrator Mike Griffin, warned the plan was overly ambitious and only a fraction of the work could be completed in a decade because the missions would cost far more than estimated.
That warning proved prescient. SMAP, for example, cost $915 million to build, launch and operate, more than three times its $300 million cost estimate in the decadal survey. Similarly, ICESat-2 will cost more than twice as much to build, launch and operate than its $300 million pricetag in the 2007 report.
NASA’s budget for GRACE Follow-On remains close to the $450 million but Germany’s DLR is providing nearly $100 million in additional funding.
To ensure estimates are more accurate in the new report published Jan. 5, “Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space,” the Aerospace Corp. provided cost and technical evaluations of major projects and technology proposed.
Nevertheless, authors of the 2017 decadal survey lauded the work of the 2007 decadal committee, and recommended NASA continue to carry out its current missions based on the report.
Here’s a look at those missions: