New Earth Science Decadal Survey Faces Complex Challenges

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WASHINGTON — The next decadal survey for space-based Earth science, preparing to get underway this summer, will be challenged to meet wide-ranging science requirements from several agencies and incorporate new technologies while staying within realistic budgets, according to those involved in the study.

The National Research Council’s governing board approved the task statement for the Earth science decadal survey earlier this month, allowing for work on the 10-year roadmap to begin in July. That task statement had been worked out earlier this year by the three agencies sponsoring the study: NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

“This is the most complex statement of task that I’ve ever seen, but to be fair, that’s reflective of the task ahead and the different demands of the three sponsors,” said Tony Busalacchi, a professor of atmospheric and ocean science at the University of Maryland and a member of the council’s Committee on Earth Science and Applications from Space, during an April 23 meeting of the Space Studies Board here.

The complexity in determining priorities for space-based Earth observations over the next decade is, as Busalacchi noted, due to the different requirements of the agencies involved. For some, the survey is more comprehensive, and critical, than others.

NASA Earth Science Director Michael Freilich at a White House climate event in 2014. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA Earth Science Director Michael Freilich at a White House climate event in 2014. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

“This survey addresses every aspect of what we do: the research program, the applications programs, and the technology development,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, during a panel discussion at the April 23 meeting.

He emphasized the importance of balance among various types of research and classes of missions, an element he said the study’s task statement captures. “The main balance questions that would be of most importance to the Earth science division are explicitly included in the statement of work,” he said.

The decadal survey takes on a different character for NOAA, which has already planned a series of both polar- and geostationary-orbiting weather satellites that extend well into the next decade. “Our ability to pivot to something new and innovative is extremely limited,” said Stephen Volz, NOAA assistant administrator for satellite and information services.

Instead, Volz said the study gives his agency an opportunity to look beyond the next decade at long-term approaches to improve weather forecasting. “What do I need to do now, in the next 10 years, to make that next generation much more capable or complement the existing systems that we’re going to have in space?”

Continuity is a major consideration for the third agency involved in the decadal, the U.S. Geological Survey. “Our users are very vocal about asking for continuity and incremental improvement,” said Sarah Ryker, USGS deputy associate director for climate and land use change.

Ryker added there was “great relief” from the community about the decision earlier this year to start development of Landsat 9, scheduled for launch in the early 2020s. “Our user community really expects long-term investment,” she said.

The issue of continuity is likely to be a major one in the survey, officials said, as it weighs the benefits of continuing existing observations versus addressing new science questions, all within constrained budgets. “We need tradeoffs between sustaining existing types of observations and adding new ones,” said Ryker.

A related issue is how to collect those observations. “I would argue that the path we’re on for Earth remote sensing is not sustainable,” Busalacchi said. “It’s very important that this survey has to engage the new aerospace community: smallsats, cubesats, formation flying, suborbital approaches.”

That desire for innovation is likely to create conflict, however. “There is a deep-seated conservatism” among the Earth science research and applications communities, as well as at NASA centers and within Congress, Freilich warned.

“The idea of innovation is something that everybody buys into: ‘Yes, we should be on the cutting edge, except not for my mission,’” he said.

Volz said that NOAA might be more willing to accept risk than NASA for future missions beyond its core weather satellite programs. “It allows us the flexibility to experiment a little bit with smaller, more exploratory missions,” he said, that could support development of weather satellite systems beyond the next decade.

Assuming the decadal survey starts this summer, Busalacchi said he expects the final report to be done by mid-2017. “Politically, I think that’s pretty good,” he said, noting that would be about six months into the next administration. “The timing and the impact of this next decadal survey are going to be critical.”