What Could We Lose if a NASA Climate Mission Goes Dark?
Researchers are racing to replace the pioneering Grace satellites, which are threatened by both dying batteries and Trump-era budget cuts.
In late August, as Hurricane Harvey began smashing into the Texas coast, a flood of data began pouring in along with the catastrophic quantities of rainwater. It wasn’t from the nonstop news coverage on CNN and elsewhere; it was from the transmissions that lay behind it, in the pulses of information coming down from space. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites, crucial tools for monitoring big storms in the Gulf of Mexico, were capturing cloud formations, surface temperatures and barometric pressures, which were then fed into computer models tracking the storm’s strength and intensity. At the same time, NASA was using a group of satellites to keep tabs on soil moisture, flood patterns and power failures all over East Texas. In various ways, this torrent of data was being collected continuously from hundreds (or even thousands) of miles overhead, through radar instruments and spectroradiometer sensors and exquisitely calibrated imaging cameras. The machines being used aren’t household names — they go by acronyms like GOES-13, Modis and SMAP — but they demonstrate why the popular view of Earth as a big blue planet with only the Moon as its companion could do with some revising. We are also surrounded by a constellation of satellites spinning elliptical webs of environmental observation, day and night.