The successful launch Oct. 19 of Metop-1, Europe’s first polar-orbiting meteorological satellite, marks an important milestone on both sides of the Atlantic. For better and for worse, Europe and the United States are now officially joined at the hip in global weather monitoring and forecasting.
Metop-1 joins U.S. weather satellites as part of the so-called Initial Joint Polar System, a trans-Atlantic collaboration several years in the making. The satellites comprising the U.S. contribution were once part of separate programs managed by the civilian National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Defense. The convergence of these programs is premised on the idea that mutual dependence among nations and agencies with common goals is a viable alternative to duplication.
The U.S. and European polar programs are now fully intertwined: Metop-1 carries four U.S.-supplied instruments; likewise the NOAA N and planned NOAA N-Prime satellites carry European sensors as part of their payload package. Meanwhile, U.S. officials envision a more prominent role for Metop satellites in the U.S. civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System in the wake of its restructuring due to skyrocketing costs.
Getting to this point has not been easy or pretty. International space programs are always complicated and the joint polar program was no exception: NOAA and Eumetsat, the European meteorological satellite organization, have been — and in some cases still are — dealing with issues have include technical compatibility, disruptive schedule delays on one side or the other and opposition from national industry groups fearful of losing business. There also were protracted negotiations over data policy differences, which were settled only this year when Europe grudgingly accepted Washington’s demand for the right to restrict access by certain groups to weather information during military crises.
These and other issues are bound to crop up from time to time during operation of the Initial Joint Polar System and development of follow-on constellations. Resolving them will require patience and a willingness to compromise, qualities that are always most readily available when the parties involved have no other choice in the matter.
This is just one reason why decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic should take the view that they have started down a cooperative path on weather satellites from which there is no return. If the two sides can find ways to overcome the substantial obstacles to working together in an area as critical as satellite weather forecasting, who knows what else might be possible?