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Death postponed for Landsat satellites.

Death postponed for Landsat satellites

In what amounts to a last-minute stay of execution, a council headed by Vice President Quayle announced that emergency funding would keep alive two aging satellites threatened with shutdown at the end of the month. These satellites, Landsat 4 and 5, provide detailed snapshots of Earth's land surface, highly valued in the scientific and business communities.

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which funds Landsat, said it could not continue operations of the satellites after March 31. NOAA announced that if other sources do not support the program, the satellites would be set adrift.

Last week, however, the National Space Council announced a full review of the Landsat program and promised an infusion of funds to keep the satellites alive during the review period. Although the council has not provided full details, some of the additional funding will come from federal departments that use Landsat information. While NOAA says $9.4 million is needed to continue the program through fiscal year 1989, which ends Sept. 30, the council has not announced how much funding it has gathered.

The threatened shutdown is the latest episode in an ongoing drama. In 1985, the Reagan administration negotiated an agreement to shift the Landsat program into private hands, and the transition is now midway. While the government owns the satellites pays for their operation, it gives the data to the EOSAT company in Lanham, Md., which sells the images.

Many scientists have criticized the switch, in part because EOSAT quadrupled the price of standard images when it took over. Yet EOSAT does not deserve all the blame for the problems plaguing the Landsat program, argues John J. Egan of the Egan Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm in the field of remote-sensing. The commercialization "was handled very badly, by all sides," says Egan, who conducted study for NOAA on the financing of Landsat-like projects.

Landsats 4 and 5, launched in 1982 and 1984, have both lived well beyond their three-year engineered expectancy. With some problems, they continue to function and "there is an excellent chance they will continue to operate through the next year [if funded]," says W. John Hussey from NOAA. In each of the last three years, the President's budget has not requested any money for the aging satellites. Congress has saved Landsats 4 and 5 each time, although this year it has funded operations only through March. The next satellite in the series, Landsat 6, won't enter Earth orbit until mid-1991 at the earliest. The commercialization plan calls for EOSAT to assume operating costs of Landsat 6 after the launch.

Images from Landsat serve scores of different purposes. In the scientific world, they allow geologists to assess damage from volcanic eruptions and ecologists to track the destruction of forests and wetlands. Commercially, they help commodities businesses estimates crop yields and they play a part in spotting likely mineral and oil deposits.

If funding for Landsats 4 and 5 dries up, EOSAT will lose all access to the Landsat data archives and will not be able to produce any images, says Richard Mroczynski of EOSAT.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 18, 1989
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