Goldberg: Cloudy forecast for our weather eyes in the sky

An image of the East Coast taken by

An image of the East Coast taken by NASA's GOES-13 satellite. (Credit: NASA GOES Project)

We are at severe risk of losing our first line of defense from severe storms, our weather satellites.

Since the first weather satellite was launched in 1960, our nation and world have become dependent on these orbiting sentinels to track a broad range of conditions and to warn us of the severe weather that can kill the unwary. Whether it's checking on emerging tropical storms, monitoring climate change, redirecting airline flights from storm cells or just alerting us to the need for an umbrella, these satellites are an integral part of managing our society.

Now the meteorological community on Long Island and across the nation is being warned by scientists we may soon lose the ability to view key satellite images and atmospheric measurements for a year or more, while multiple aging weather satellites receive vital repairs or are replaced altogether.


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But age isn't the only thing putting our 22,000-mile-high flying monitors at risk. In May, a micrometeoroid struck the GOES-13 satellite, which we depend on to forecast the weather in the East Coast and along the tropical Atlantic. The collision forced the satellite into an orbit around the Earth that is off the course of its designated path. The satellite was repositioned by ground-based engineers, but it left gaps in information reports during the month it was offline.

The incident demonstrates how thin the margin is between receiving crucial information and being plunged into darkness. Between the cosmic clutter that naturally exists in near-Earth orbit and the ever-increasing amount of orbiting debris left from prior missions by the international space community, the odds of something striking one of our weather satellites increases every year.

We've come a long way in how we predict the weather since TIROS-1 was blasted into orbit in 1960. It provided simple cloud images for about two months before it went dark. The life span of satellites is far longer now, with GOES-13 going the distance for seven years in the harsh environment of space. And unlike TIROS, enormous improvements and new technologies give weather forecasters the ability to identify trends weeks before weather events happen.

This increase in technology has been a blessing to forecasters but, just like some of our public infrastructure on the ground, we haven't been able to provide the maintenance needed to keep these satellites functioning. Of the 23 current satellites dedicated to Earth missions, 14 monitored by NASA's Earth Observing System Project Science Office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., are now well beyond their anticipated years of use. There's limited money available to repair or replace them.

Yet we know the weather is only getting worse, which means investing in dependable, long-lasting instruments is nothing less than crucial. Consider if we had not had up-to-the-minute data on superstorm Sandy because of satellite failure. The lack of accurate and immediate information would have added considerably to the loss of life and property. Instead of "sirens" from our satellites warning of a historic storm, we would have had silence.

It takes years to fund, design and launch weather satellites. Some of the replacement programs now underway are struggling to meet their timetables, and federal budget cuts mandated under sequestration are expected to impact space launches. Space experts say the gap in maintaining a comprehensive constellation of weather satellites could be anywhere from 17 to 53 months, depending on which orbital platform fails and why.

The time to make this an urgent national priority was yesterday.

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