For 18 years, a fully-built, ready-to-launch weather satellite sat inside a Lockheed Martin facility near Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, California. Scientists were waiting for the spacecraft to be called into active duty since it was completed during the Clinton administration.
A different order from Washington arrived instead.
Because of resistance in Congress — particularly from Rep. Michael Rogers of Alabama, who chairs a key House Defense subcommittee — Capitol Hill told the Air Force to take the satellite apart.
Congress simply refused to fund the Air Force’s request for $120 million to launch the spacecraft, even though the service said it was needed for weather forecasting, a crucial aspect of battlefield planning. In addition, climate scientists were counting on that satellite to help them monitor Arctic ice melt.
Now, instead of helping scientists and members of the military, the satellite will go on display — stripped of its expensive instruments — next month in a museum at Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo, California.
The decision to dismantle the satellite shocked scientists, who were hoping to use a microwave sensor aboard it to help them avoid a dangerous gap in Arctic sea ice data that may open up between now and 2023. That is the estimated year when the next Air Force weather satellite launch is planned.
The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and there is also an increasing demand for weather forecasting in this region as shipping and natural resources activities increase, and search and rescue demands grow.
Charts of Arctic sea ice extent since 1979 show a sharp downward trend, as the region warms at about twice the rate of the rest of the world.
The decision was even more surprising considering that the Air Force had already shelled out $518 million to build and store the spacecraft, and had taken steps to save money along the way.
Sea ice trends since 1979 for the month of September.
The satellites in the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite series were manufactured in bulk to reduce costs, and then put in storage until the military chose to launch them.
“It cost money to store it, but the Air Force probably saved something close to a billion dollars” building the spacecraft in bulk, said Dave Gallaher, a senior associate scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, in an interview.
The spacecraft, known as the DMSP-F20, was dismantled beginning in October 2016. By March of this year, its instruments had been totally taken apart. This occurred despite the fact that the climate science community was increasingly uneasy about continuing their data set, which has been one of the iconic graphs demonstrating the effects of global warming.
“We could have saved the Air Force and the Congress a lot of aggravation if we put a half of a billion dollars in a parking lot and just burned it,”
“That was a real shock to everybody,” Gallaher said, regarding the dismantling of the replacement satellite. When the DMSP-F19 satellite began to fail about 18 months ago, Gallaher said, “The assumption was oh we’ve got [number] 20 in the can, we’ll launch 20.”
But Congress went ahead and destroyed it anyway, a decision Gallaher derided as “Trying to save cents while making no sense.”
Rep. Rogers, in particular, helped kill the F20’s chances. “We could have saved the Air Force and the Congress a lot of aggravation if we put a half of a billion dollars in a parking lot and just burned it,” he said at a January 2016 congressional hearing, referring to the satellite’s total cost.
Sea ice meets land as seen from NASA’s Operation IceBridge research aircraft along the Upper Baffin Bay coast on March 27, 2017 above Greenland.
Image: mario tama/Getty Images
The destruction of DMSP-F20 brought a sudden end to a half-century-long program that has provided the armed forces with up-to-the-minute, worldwide weather information.
Climate scientists have effectively hopped on board the DMSP program in order to track sea ice trends, since the passive microwave sensors aboard the Defense Department weather satellites that travel near the North Pole are ideal for detecting both the extent and depth of ice cover.
However, as the current satellites in orbit age — they all have exceeded their designed five-year lifespans — their instruments are becoming less reliable, raising the concern over a gap in data coverage at a time of increased interest in what is going on in one of the planet’s fastest-warming regions.
Last year, the newest sensor, on the satellite known as F19, went completely dark for a period of time, causing “grave concerns” about the long-term continuity of sea ice records, the National Snow and Ice Data Center said in a news release. In addition, the microwave sensor on board the F17 satellite has also blinked on and off, requiring fixes from the ground.
Last month, the sensor aboard the F19 satellite, the youngest of the series currently in orbit, stopped transmitting data altogether.
This means that right now, three aging Defense Department satellites are providing the data that polar scientists are looking for in order to continue tracking sea ice extent and thickness.
“The youngest of these satellites is F18, which was launched in 2009. So it is now over 8 years old,” said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the NSIDC.
“The planned mission lifetime of these satellites is 5 years, so we’re well beyond that. However, it is not all unusual for the satellites and their sensors to last much longer,” he added.
“For example, F13, which NSIDC used for many years, was useful for sea ice for 13 years, and actually still had some functionality for nearly 20 years. F16 is now 14 years old,” he said in an email.
The timeframe of greatest concern is between now and 2023, which is the earliest conceivable date when the next satellite with a replacement microwave instrument would launch. The satellite instrument in question is a low frequency microwave sensor, which is technically known as the 37 Gigahertz vertical polarization channel. It forms part of the algorithm that the NSIDC uses to measure Arctic sea ice extent.
Meier said that although scientists were disappointed with Congress’ decision to deny funding for launching the already completed DMSP-F20 satellite, there is a chance that the craft would have malfunctioned after sitting in storage for so long. “… 20 years in storage is probably not good for the sensor,” Meier said. “I wonder (just my own personal musing) if the long storage of F19 (also built in 1998) was a factor in its failure after less than two years in orbit,” Meier said.
Fahey is not optimistic about avoiding a gap in sea ice data: “These things are all way past their lifetime. Some of the sensors have already started to fail,” he said. “F17 has blinked on and off several times”
“The odds of them making it to 2023 are frankly just not very good.”
Image: Zack Labe
The NSIDC has begun examining alternatives, should the day come when there is no longer a Defense Department satellite carrying one of the necessary microwave instruments.
One option may be to utilize a different sensor on a Japanese satellite, known as the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer (AMSR), which launched in 2012. The issue with that sensor, though, is that it doesn’t exactly match up with the record from the Defense Department spacecraft.
“AMSR2 is a different design and its spatial resolution on the ground is quite different (better actually), so it’s not as straightforward to match up with the DMSP record. However, we could use it if necessary and have started looking into that,” Meier said.
Scientists need a period of overlap between an old and a new sensor in order to properly calibrate any new instrument, and adjust for abnormalities. Otherwise, problematic gaps or biases could be introduced into the record.
Another potential option would be to strike an agreement with China to obtain data from their Fengyun satellite series that carry the necessary microwave instruments. However, that is likely to raise national security concerns, given fears over Chinese spying, cyberattacks, and industrial espionage. NASA scientists, for example, are not allowed to work with China, making a partnership with NSIDC difficult, given that Meier and others are also affiliated with the space agency.
“We have discussed it, but it’s a sensitive issue due to restrictions on working with the Chinese. I don’t want to say to much more than that. It would be a possible resource if various protocols could be worked out,” Meier said.
The Arctic has been warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the planet.
Image: berkeley earth.
In addition, the burgeoning private sector satellite industry may also provide some hope for a solution, Gallaher said. However, many of the satellites launched by companies such as Planet and Spire are too small to carry the instrument that polar scientists need. The antenna, for example is a meter across, which is bigger than some of these satellites.
“I’m hopeful private industry’s going to step up,” Gallaher said, though he warned this, too, will take years if it happens.
Gallaher said at the end of the day, scientists will make do with the resources that they have at their disposal. However, it’s problematic that given the heightened interest in what is going on in the Arctic, we’d run the risk of causing a blind spot in that area.
“What would we do if it does go dark? We’ll do the best we can,” Fahey said. “At a time when we’re kinda concerned with what’s going on… this is not the time you want to start losing critical data.”