WASHINGTON — A new report echoes concerns voiced over the past year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the aging of U.S. Earth observation satellites, coupled with delays in the next-generation U.S. civil polar-orbiting weather satellite program, puts the U.S. “at risk of having serious gaps in observational capability, for both operational forecasting missions and for key climate records.”

The report, “A Review of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Draft Strategic Plan,” was released Jan. 5 by the National Research Council (NRC) Committee to Advise the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP).

The report also raised worries that the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates the climate change research efforts of 13 federal agencies, had not presented a firm enough strategy for preserving U.S. Earth observation capabilities for the coming decade.

“The plan acknowledges that satellite remote sensing observations are a core foundation of global change research that must be sustained in the coming decades, but the committee is concerned about the lack of clear strategies for doing so,” the report states.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program is crafting a 10-year strategy, covering 2012 through 2021, to guide federal research into “global change,” which includes climate change. The National Research Council’s report is an evaluation of that strategic plan, which was released in draft form Sept. 30. The final report is due out early this year, the U.S. Global Change Research Program said on its website.

NOAA spokeswoman Linda Joy said the agency had no immediate comment.

“We will work with USGCRP on revising the Strategic Plan based on the NRC comments and moving forward with the implementation of the program,” Jack Kaye, associate director for research at NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington, wrote in a statement emailed to Space News Jan. 10.

NASA currently has 16 Earth science satellites in orbit, spokesman Steve Cole said. The most recently launched is the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP), which was conceived as an instrument test bed for the now-canceled civil-military National Polar-orbiting Operation Environmental Satellite System program. When NPOESS was dismantled by the White House in 2010, NOAA and NASA were directed to begin work on a civilian-only constellation called the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

NPP launched in October and is slated to remain in operation until 2016 — about the time when the first Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft, itself essentially a copy of the NPP, will launch.

Because of the timing of that satellite’s launch and NPP’s expected end of life, NOAA has cautioned that a potential gap in U.S. civilian polar weather coverage may occur over the 14 to 20 months needed for the first Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft to finish on-orbit testing prior to entering service.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., is the prime contractor on the Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft. Garland, Texas-based Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems is working on the JPSS Common Ground System.

The National Research Council warned in its Jan. 5 report that “delays in advancing NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System have led to the possibility of a gap in some key observations that have been collected over the past decade by the Earth Observing System satellites (which are well past their expected operational lifespan).”

According to the latest U.S. Global Change Research Program strategic plan, NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System archive, the agency’s vault of observational data from satellites and terrestrial sources, grew to 4,600 terabytes in 2010 from about 100 terabytes in 2000.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s aggregate Earth observation program suffered other setbacks in 2011. Among these were the cancellation in December of the Defense Weather Satellite System — the Defense Department’s proposed military-only constellation of polar-orbiting weather satellites — and the loss of NASA’s Glory climate observation satellite to a launch failure last March.



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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.