Statement of Task
Many NASA Earth observing research satellites can continue to acquire useful data well past the end of their planned baseline missions. Extending these missions may benefit research, applications, and/or operational monitoring or prediction activities. While costs for extending on-orbit missions are small compared with development and implementation costs, they are not negligible, and it is not clear how the extension costs should be borne by the benefiting agencies. This study will examine the suite of multi-agency issues associated with (1) criteria for identifying missions that should be extended, and (2) principles for allocating multi-agency mission operations and mission support for extended missions.
Many NASA research satellites are fully functional and are routinely acquiring accurate data at the end of their planned baseline missions. Extending these missions can often benefit the research community and can enable unanticipated science investigations, beyond those used originally to justify the mission. In the case of some Earth observation missions, non-research applications for the measurements are developed during the baseline mission; extending the mission can allow the applications products to be improved, distributed broadly, and tested widely. This can include increased use of the data for monitoring and decision-making purposes.
Many Earth observing research missions deliver near-real-time data that can also be used to support operational predictions or decision making. Focused efforts to exploit the data from research missions for operational purposes often only begin well into the baseline mission, after the measurements have been validated and characterized by the research community. Assimilation techniques and utility demonstrations are often incomplete at the end of the baseline mission. Owing to cost considerations, other agencies are sometimes reluctant to conduct full-scale operational testing unless the near-real-time data stream is expected to continue for several years. Extending these research missions can enhance operational exploitation of their measurements and those of follow-on missions.
The marginal costs to extend on-orbit missions are generally small compared with the investments and risks associated with building and orbiting the satellite, developing and validating the research algorithms and products, and conducting the baseline NASA research mission. However, the operating and data production costs are not negligible, especially when multiplied by the increasing number of on-orbit missions. Indeed, the sum of operating costs can be significant when compared with the NASA technology investigations and research support necessary to ensure the development of future, more capable Earth observing missions.
The situation is further complicated by recent policies calling for mandatory end-of-mission deorbiting of spacecraft which pose significant damage or liability risk if allowed to re-enter in an uncontrolled fashion. Mission extensions increase the risks of spacecraft failures that could preclude controlled re-entry, which must be balanced against the benefits of the additional data.
NOTE: See the discussion in the Preface regarding changes to the committee’s statement of task.
Decisions to extend or terminate NASA research satellite missions have historically been justified by NASA alone, and the extended mission costs have been borne by the NASA budget. Within the Office of Space Science, a Senior Review process has been formalized to examine mission continuation issues and implications. However, products from NASA Earth observation missions are used by (and often directly benefit) other agencies, and thus termination or extension decisions seem to require more extensive examinations. Key factors include ensuring that the overall research, applications, and operational benefits to the nation are maximized while providing that the communities and agencies that benefit from the data share the costs of extended missions equitably. To date, no national policies (and few examples) exist for guiding such multi-agency decisions. The situation is further complicated by short decision-making times. Baseline mission durations are typically 3-5 years, providing few budget cycles to develop and assess applications and operational prediction products, and then to negotiate multi-agency extended mission agreements and get budgetary approval for each agency.
While the most obvious near-term interagency collaborations involve NASA and NOAA (for research missions producing data that contribute to operational weather and environmental prediction), collaborations between NASA and one or more other agencies (such as the U.S. Geological Survey, Federal Emergency Management Agency, etc.) are likely to arise.
CHARGE TO THE COMMITTEE
The Space Studies Board will organize a study of the challenges, recommended principles, and potential processes for:
Identifying NASA research missions that should be extended; and
Establishing the necessary interagency coordination for supporting and implementing extended mission operations.
The committee will not make recommendations on whether specific missions should be extended or terminated.
The committee will consider issues including:
Mechanisms for ensuring the continued production of consistent, accurate research products during extended mission operations;
Implications of mandatory de-orbiting policies and responsibilities;
Methods for efficiently tracking and evaluating the direct use of data and information from NASA research missions by other agencies and the private sector; and
Challenges associated with multi-agency responsibilities for meeting the resource needs of extended missions or transfer of mission operations support from NASA to another agency.
The committee will also provide recommendations regarding
General criteria and approaches to assist NASA in assessing the continued research value and potential of mission continuation; and
General criteria and approaches to assist NOAA and other agencies in assessing the operational prediction and NOAA-relevant research value and potential of mission continuation.