Weather Watchers in Space

September 15, 1991

Some members of Congress have reacted with dismay that U.S. forecasters want to borrow a European satellite to back up the aging GOES-7 weather watcher. GOES, or Geostationary Operation Environmental Satellites, have taken the big pictures of continents and oceans shown on television and printed in newspaper weather reports for years. GOES-7, the lone operating U.S. weather watcher, is to end its projected five-year life span in February. Meteorologists are afraid it could fail before they get a replacement into orbit. That would leave this country, which invented satellite weather forecasting, unable to track major storm systems or observe other climatological events.

The key issue is safety, for air travelers, boating enthusiasts, commercial cargo operators, fishermen and people engaged in the myriad activities exposed to the weather. The European offer to loan their Meteostat-3 to the United States at cost ($10 million for the orbiter and a ground station to control it) is a humanitarian gesture. Americans should be thanking the Europeans, not dusting off nationalistic pride over who made the satellite.

U.S. authorities have badly neglected the basic business of supporting day-to-day weather needs. Months ago, scientists noted that this country was in danger of losing its weather orbiters. GOES-7 and its sister craft were aging and GOES-NEXT, the first of a $1.7 billion replacement fleet, was badly behind schedule. GOES-NEXT, full of new technology, is supposed to fly into orbit late next year, but some think that is overly optimistic.

A few members of Congress want to co-opt a Hughes Aircraft satellite being built for Japan, at a cost of $100 to $125 million. The satellite, which would not need the new ground station to be built for Meteostat, is a spare for Japan's meteorologists. Aside from the interference in Japan's plans, this plan is even more unsatisfactory. Meteostat-3, already aloft, has sent down vital pictures of East Coast hurricanes this season. Americans must correct the problems that have grounded GOES-NEXT two years past its planned liftoff, not rush after another expensive, long-term substitute.

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