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Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

Budgets Imperil Environmental Satellites

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By Matt Crenson
AP National Writer

_Last month Scripps' Valero was notified that the Deep Space Climate Observatory, a project he has led for more than seven years, would be canceled. The spacecraft has already been built, but NASA is reluctant to spend the $60 million to $100 million it would cost to launch and operate it.

"It would be a tremendous return in science on the dollar," Valero said.

The observatory would have provided valuable information about how clouds, snow cover, airborne dust and other phenomena affect the balance between the amount of sunlight Earth absorbs and the amount of heat energy it emits. And because it would have hovered between Earth and the sun at a distance of roughly a million miles, it would have been able to observe the entire sunlit surface of the planet constantly. Such observations could greatly enhance scientists' understanding how much the planet has warmed in recent years and help them predict how much warmer it will get in the future.

_A new generation of weather satellites being developed jointly by NASA, the Department of Defense and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has gone so far over budget that federal law requires a review of whether it is worth continuing. Even if the program does survive, the first spacecraft in the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System can't be launched until at least 2010, and probably 2012.

The current generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites is critical to weather forecasting because it offers a complete picture of the planet every six-hours. That detailed coverage is especially important for developing four- to seven-day forecasts, because it gives meteorologists the ability to track weather systems as they evolve in both time and space.

Weather forecasts could be compromised if the launch of the final satellite from the previous generation of polar orbiters, scheduled for late 2007, fails. The chances of a satellite failing on launch are typically about 10 percent.


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