10 June 2006: NASA is cancelling or delaying a number of satellites designed to give scientists critical information on the earth’s changing climate and environment. The space agency has shelved a US$ 200 million satellite mission headed by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor that was designed to measure soil moisture – a key factor in helping scientists understand the impact of global warming and predict droughts and floods.
The Deep Space Climate Observatory, intended to examine climate factors such as solar radiation, ozone, clouds and water vapour more comprehensively than existing satellites, has also been cancelled. And in its 2007 budget, NASA proposes significant delays in a global precipitation- measuring mission to help with weather predictions, as well as the launch of a satellite designed to increase the timeliness and accuracy of severe weather forecasts and improve climate models.
The changes come as NASA pays for the completion of the International Space Station and the return of astronauts to the moon by 2020 – a goal set by the US President, George Bush. Ultimately, scientists say, the delays and cancellations could make hurricane predictions less accurate, create gaps in long-term monitoring of weather, and result in less clarity about the earth’s hydrological systems, which play an integral part in climate change.
While NASA is proposing similarly deep cuts to other important science programs such as astrobiology – the search for life in space – the earth science mission cancellations and delays take on greater significance, some scientists say, given recent allegations by a top NASA researcher and other government scientists that the Bush Administration tried to silence their warnings about global warming.
While scientists in this regards said that they did not believe the earth science cuts were a deliberate attempt to stall debate on climate change, they said it came at a time when more research, not less, was needed. NASA’s earth science budget has already sustained a round of cuts during the past two years.
“Right now, we are going through the program carefully looking for efficiencies to restore some of these cuts,” said Bryant Cramer, acting director of NASA’s earth science division.