WASHINGTON — U.S. Earth observation capabilities are in a worse position then they were five years ago because NASA’s Earth Science Division is not launching new observatories quickly enough to offset the decay of existing space assets, warns a report published May 2 by the National Research Council (NRC).

“The nation’s Earth observing system is beginning a rapid decline in capability as long-running missions end and key new missions are delayed, lost, or canceled,” concludes the new report from the NRC’s Committee on the Assessment of NASA’s Earth Science Program.

At the current rate of replacement, there will be 25 percent fewer U.S. Earth observation instruments in space in 2020 than there are today, the new report said. That tally includes both NASA instruments and instruments operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is in charge of the nation’s civil weather satellites.

The committee that wrote the May 2 report was chaired by Dennis Hartmann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. The ad hoc body was convened to evaluate NASA’s midterm progress in implementing a 10-year roadmap laid out by the Earth science community in 2007.

In that so-called decadal survey report, “Earth Science and Applications from Space,” the community endorsed launching 17 Earth observation missions between 2010 and 2020.

NASA has launched none of these missions to date. The first four missions on the list were to have launched by 2013, but only two of those missions currently have launch dates: the Soil Moisture Active-Passive mission, scheduled for launch in October 2014, and the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 mission, scheduled for launch in 2016.

The main reason for NASA’s slow progress, according to the new report, is insufficient funding.

When scientists wrote their 10-year plan in 2007, they assumed that NASA’s Earth science budget would rise to rise to $2 billion by 2010 and remain at that level. Compared with what these scientists expected, funding for 2010 through 2012 came up more than $1 billion short.

The Earth science budget has now risen from $1.24 billion in 2008 to $1.76 billion in 2012. Even last year’s appropriation, the high water mark for the division so far, “is not sufficient to execute the decadal survey’s recommended program,” the NRC report concludes. Appropriations bills for 2013, now awaiting votes in the House and Senate, propose funding NASA Earth science at about $1.78 billion. Neither the White House nor Congress has endorsed raising NASA’s Earth science budget to $2 billion a year.

Recognizing that the funding levels assumed in the 2007 decadal survey are unlikely to materialize, the report recommends NASA managers interpret the estimated mission costs in the decadal as indications of the relative importance of the science enabled by these missions. Appropriated funds should then be distributed accordingly, “even if all desired science objectives for the mission may not be achieved,” the report reads.

The NRC report also flags rising launch costs as a major concern, saying the “lack of reliable, affordable, and predictable access to space has become a key impediment to implementing NASA’s Earth science program.”

In particular, “the lack of a medium-class launch vehicle threatens programmatic robustness,” according to the new report.

NASA had been using Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Taurus XL rocket to launch Earth science satellites in that payload category. But after losing the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory satellites to back-to-back Taurus failures, NASA is taking another look at Delta 2.

 NASA had decided in 2007 to phase out its use of that rocket because the agency could no longer share the vehicle’s costs with the Air Force, which quit using the launcher in 2009. The last NASA payload to ride on a Delta 2 was the Suomi NPP climate and weather satellite, which launched in October.

However, there are still enough parts in United Launch Alliance’s Decatur, Ala., factory to build five additional Delta 2 rockets. Steve Volz, the NASA Earth Science Division’s associate director for flight programs, has said the division is likely to order a few.

The Soil Moisture Active-Passive mission, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 and the Joint Polar Satellite System-1 mission are all likely to launch on a Delta 2, Volz said in March. The latter two missions are slated for launch in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

The 2007 Earth science decadal survey recommended missions that could utilize small- and medium-sized launchers, but there are few of those on the launch market today, and fewer still that have been certified to carry NASA payloads.

Orbital’s medium-class Antares lifter is a long way from certification; the rocket is yet to make its maiden flight.

Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 rocket, which the Hawthorne, Calif., company says would be much cheaper than Delta 2, has two flights under its belt, but still lacks the flight record NASA requires for rockets launching high-value science satellites.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.