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Earth Observations and Space Policy (2/25/13)

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Prompted by growing concern about climate change, natural hazards and the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Earth observation initiatives have become an issue of broad concern in Congress. While NASA is well known for its Earth observations, other agencies also collaborate and run observations programs benefitting the geosciences.  These agencies include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and some programs within the Department of Defense.

The 2007 publication of the National Research Council's report, "Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond," pushed the 110th Congress to discuss the state of national and international Earth observation projects. It also marked the first time that the Earth science community has come together to develop a list of priorities for Earth observations. With NASA’s space shuttle being retired in 2010 and stagnant funding for satellite observation mission, the outlook for Earth observations and space programs looks bleak unless a renewed focus is put on these missions.

President Obama and Congress have given NASA a new direction through the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S.3729; Public Law 111-267), which shifts manned spaceflight and rocket launches to private industry while NASA focuses on future deep space exploration targets. Expect the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to work on a reauthorization for NASA in the first year of the 113th Congress.

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NASA Lands Curiosity Rover on Mars (08/12)
At 1:32 AM Eastern Standard Time on August 6, 2012 the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) landed the Mars Science Laboratory on the surface of Mars. The rover, known as Curiosity, is NASA’s fourth and largest Mars rover. This achievement was augmented by the success of a new landing system, the sky crane maneuver, where Curiosity was lowered by a rocket-propelled platform.

Curiosity is outfitted with an unprecedented science payload with instruments from Russia, the U.S. and Spain. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) experiment contains a quadrupole mass spectrometer and a gas chromatograph to measure isotopic ratios in rocks and the atmosphere. The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer will measure traces elements in rocks and soil while using X-ray diffraction and fluorescence to measure bulk compositions. A laser spectrometer called ChemCam can measure elemental concentrations from up to 30 feet away. The Spanish Ministry of Education and Science contributed the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station which measures atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind velocity and ultraviolet radiation.

A nuclear generator provided by the Department of Energy (DOE) powers the rover. NASA estimates the generator could last for a full Martian year (687 Earth days) or more, providing a wealth of data on Martian geology.

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 to conduct space and aeronautical research, development, and flight activities for peaceful purposes in order to maintain the U.S. role as a world leader in aviation and as the preeminent space nation. NASA's mission is to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.
Earth observation is related to NASA’s science and exploration. Global observations of Earth are essential to understanding how the planet is changing and the implications of these changes for society. In the coming decades, society’s prosperity and security will depend increasingly on Earth information, predictions, and warnings, which, in turn, rely fundamentally on sustained observations of the Earth system, linked to land and ocean observations and decision-support structures. The need for Earth observation led to the U.S. initiated Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS). GEOSS touts a broad range of societal benefits, notably:

  • Reducing loss of life and property from natural and human-induced disasters;
  • Understanding environmental factors affecting human health and well-being,
  • Improving the management of energy resources,
  • Understanding, assessing, predicting, mitigating, and adapting to climate variability and change,
  • Improving water resource management through better understanding of the water cycle,
  • Improving weather information, forecasting and warning,
  • Improving the management and protection of terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems,
  • Supporting sustainable agriculture and combating desertification, and
  • Understanding, monitoring and conserving biodiversity.

At the federal level, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) asked the National Research Council (NRC) to generate a “decadal survey” in 2004 to develop the key scientific questions for Earth observation for the period of 2005-2015 and beyond, and to present a prioritized list of space programs, missions, and supporting activities to address these questions.  The U.S. also created The United States Group on Earth Observations (US GEO) in 2005 as a standing subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. To provide a framework for the integration of U.S. Earth observations, USGEO developed the Strategic Plan for the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System, released in 2005. This strategic plan set forth goals and requirements for U.S. observing systems and contributions to GEOSS.

In 2007 the NRC published the Earth Science and Application from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond. First among the Council's 400 pages of recommendations is that "the U.S. government, working in concert with the private sector, academe, the public, and its international partners, should renew its investment in Earth observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications." Currently NASA and NOAA both have Earth observation program, NASA’s Earth Observing System and NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services (NESDIS).

However, despite the critical need for Earth observation systems, global initiatives, established programs, and the NRC's first-ever Earth science decadal survey, the increasing expense and general budgetary problems at NASA make policymakers wary of promising more funding for satellite-based missions. NOAA’s National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) was established to monitor the entire planet and provide data for long-range weather and climate forecasts. However, in late 2005 Congress noted that NPOESS is at least $3 billion over budget and about three years behind its 2009 launch date.

In January, 2004, President Bush announced "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery: The President’s Vision for U.S. Space Exploration", a new directive for the Nation’s future in space exploration. A part of the vision was a new commitment to return humans to the Moon by 2020, and, ultimately, to Mars as part of the Constellation program. In response to this policy directive, NASA published, in February 2004, its Vision for Space Exploration, which set specific exploration goals and milestones in accordance with the President's policy directive. By June of 2004, a Presidential Commission on Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy (Aldridge Commission) released a final report instructing NASA on how to implement the administration’s vision. Among its recommendations, the report emphasized increased private sector engagement, and called for an agency-wide reorganization to consolidate some of the agency's science research and development programs.

On November 13, 2008, The Planetary Society released a report entitled “Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century.” Stressed in the report is the importance of developing international collaborations to maximize global progress in human space exploration, including the need for the U.S. to work with international partners to ensure that the Space Shuttle can be retired in 2010 while still maintaining access to the International Space Station. It also maintains that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) should be fully funded at the level of the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 6063) that became law in October 2008 (Public Law: 110-422) and adjusted for inflation in coming years. Congress did authorize $20.2 billion for NASA operations, education, science, and exploration in fiscal year 2009, almost $2.5 billion more than allocated by either Appropriations Committee.

At the 2008 House Science and Technology Committee hearing celebrating NASA’s 50 years, the witnesses concluded that in order to remain competitive in space and science in general the U.S. needed to excited younger generations about space, and invest in science education and research. The witnesses concluded that, if adequately funded, NASA could accomplish all its goals related to space exploration, observation, science, and education.

In 2010 President Obama announced his new national space policy, one that would shift manned spaceflight and rocket launches to private industry while NASA focuses on future deep space exploration targets. He proposed cancelling the Constellation program and developed the Space Launch System (SLS) as a replacement. The President and Congress directed NASA under SLS to develop a new heavy lift rocket and crew capsule based on previous designs to send crews and supplies into deep space by 2016. However, in January 2011, NASA announced that they lack adequate funding and time to accomplish these two tasks.

Congress passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S.3729; Public Law 111-267) in October 2010. As requested by Obama, it terminates the Constellation program. In July 2011, NASA completed the space shuttle program’s final mission.

NASA successfully landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in August 2012.  Curiosity promises to provide a wealth of scientific information as it is outfitted with an unprecedented scientific instrument payload.  NASA also received two intelligence telescopes from the U.S. military which, once equipped with additional instruments, will be capable of replacing the aging Hubble Space Telescope.  It could take over a decade for NASA to be ready to launch these satellites given current budgetary restrictions.  To replace another aging instrument, Landsat 5, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission or Landsat 8 was launched in February 2013.

In September 2012, Republican representatives introduced the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012 which would have increased government oversight of NASA through the establishment of an 11 member board of directors appointed by the House of Representatives, Senate, and President of the United States.

Contributed by Wilson Bonner, AGI Geoscience Policy Staff; Kimberley Corwin, 2013 AAPG/AGI Spring Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's Earth Observation Policy Pages and NASA Pages for the112th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on February 25, 2013

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