The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) 15 satellite, launched in March 2010, today replaced the 11-year-old GOES 11, which was retired. The most remarkable aspect of this news is that there has been such a coordinated replacement scheme where the satellite has been in orbit and at the ready for more than a year. In light of budget wrangling about other earth observation missions, this begs the question as to why we don’t value other satellite sensors to this same degree.
One thought is that the regional nature of their coverage areas makes these satellites politically safe. No politician would forego the renewal of such a program that directly impacts their constuents, or fail to react aggressively if the satellite covering their region were to fail to function. These satellites monitor an ever-increasing turbulent world where natural disasters appear to be taking a fiercer toll, and as such are indispensable.
The GOES program is also a media star as these satellites provide the weather imagery seen daily during news broadcasts, allowing meteorologists to track conditions and forecast the future. The constant observation of clouds, atmospheric conditions and severe weather, with the addition of Solar X-ray Imagers to study the Sun and its storms, is the ultimate overseer of events that have strong economic repercussions. By studying terrestrial weather, as well as space weather that can impact navigation and communications signals and cause glitches into power grids on Earth, we can react and plan for disruptions.
By comparison, it’s hard not to think of the hard-scrabble issues facing the Landsat earth observation constellation continuity mission or to consider what might happen if there were dramatic cuts to our commercial satellite sector. I’d argue that there are similar risks for repercussions if there are any data gaps. Perhaps these programs, and their repercussions, need to be better politicized.