A Group of Scientists Is Helping to Determine the Future of America's Satellites - Pacific Standard
An influential new survey will help government agencies decide which satellite capabilities to fund.

A team of about 100 university and industry scientists published last week their preferred priorities for the United States' satellite programs, identifying what data they most want the government to beam back from space. A huge range of people use government satellite data, from military personnel to natural-disaster responders to almost anyone who uses weather forecasts or mapping apps. It's also crucial to the future of climate-change research, which depends on satellite measurements of polar ice and sea-surface temperatures. "This really is pervasive in our daily lives," Waleed Abdalati, a geography professor at the University of Colorado–Boulder who co-chaired the report, said during a public briefing Friday. "We look at this information as part of the national infrastructure, no different from highways and railroads and air traffic."

The new report will likely act as a blueprint for NASA and other agencies in determining which satellite missions to fund over the next 10 years. The report's previous iteration, published in 2007, was widely used by the U.S.'s satellite-managing agencies, said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academies of Sciences, which organizes these decadal surveys. A 2016 NASA inspector general's report found that NASA's Earth science program was guided by the wishes of the president, Congress, and the 2007 survey.

"It provides a non-political look at what America needs from its Earth science enterprise to be prosperous," says Rachel Licker, a climate scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which was not involved in the report.

Satellite programs are expensive and out of the reach of most labs, so scientists need to decide together what instruments they want to see put up in space. The National Academies' 2018 satellite survey lists what its authors think are the "most important," "very important," and "important" scientific questions for satellite data to answer. Among the top questions Abdalati's team identified: How can we forecast weather and air quality up to two months in advance? (Lead times are now about a week.) How can we predict disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions soon enough that people can prepare? How can we make more precise predictions about what will happen as the Earth's climate warms? How much are sea levels going to rise, exactly?

Relegated to a secondary tier in importance was monitoring emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that's of particular interest to many scientists. Methane continues to pour out from the Los Angeles Basin, and some scientists argue it's an underappreciated cause of global warming. In an interview prior to the report's release, University of California–Irvine geographer Jim Randerson told Pacific Standard, "I hope that they'll identify methane as a priority. ... It'll be really neat to be able to monitor it at a high resolution because then you can really see leaking infrastructure." The report's steering committee identified methane detection as "important."

The tiers are supposed to help the science agencies prioritize the issues, in the event that they get more or less money from Congress for their satellite programs than expected. Unpredictable budgets proved a major obstacle in implementing the 2007 recommendations. For example, one recent audit found that NASA had tried to follow the recommendations of the 2007 report, but ended up not implementing some because it didn't receive as much funding as expected and satellite launches ran over-budget. The Trump administration has proposed large cuts to the government agencies that manage satellites—NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey—though it remains to be seen what Congress will approve.

Climate change research, too, has been targeted by the Trump administration, but it remains one of several "most important" recommendations in the report. "Our planet is changing. It's changing in ways that impact the way we live, and the way we live is impacting the way the planet is changing," Abdalati said. "For us to be successful [and] prosperous, as a nation ... it really is essential that we understand those changes."