The proposed 2018 federal budget tells NASA to forget about Earth

The space agency does crucial research on our own planet
strait of gibraltar from above
Using satellites to observe ocean colors gives us insight into ocean ecology and planetary health. NASA
nasa ocean colors
NASA Ocean colors is one of those programs you probably didn’t know about. NASA

The White House released its proposed 2018 fiscal year budget on Wednesday night, and the prognosis for Earth Science isn’t great. If Congress approves the budget in full, NASA’s Earth-observing satellite programs (PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR, and CLARREO Pathfinder), which are mostly still in development, are toast. And even if Congress doesn’t make all of the suggested budget cuts, the proposal indicates the administration is shrinking away from the research that most serves to benefit our own planet. Here’s what we stand to lose:

PACE—which stands for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem and is meant to launch in 2022—is designed to give a comprehensive look at global ocean colors, which sounds silly until you realize that ocean color (in wavelengths that our eyes can’t see) provides information about ocean ecology and the cycling of carbon. This image, for example, taken from the 15-year-old MODIS satellite and the five-year-old Suomi-NPP/VIIRS satellite, is gorgeous. But what you’re seeing, among many other things, is lighter water flowing eastward into the Mediterranean, getting denser through the evaporative cooling of winter.

The colors can help us see that, and much more. PACE is meant to improve the level of detail we can glean from these images. NASA even made an interactive tool to help us understand better what PACE can help us see at various color wavelengths. And the short answer is—a lot. In addition to cool ocean wavelengths, PACE would also have the ability to do things like monitor atmospheric aerosols (including air pollution), how clouds form over the ocean, and how the ocean influences our climate.

OCO-3 was supposed to launch and dock with the International Space Station, where it would make space-based measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2). In theory this would give us a way to measure the way atmospheric CO2 levels vary from year to year. NASA planned on building it from spare materials left over from the successful development and launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO-2) making OCO-3 an especially unusual target for budgetary cuts (unless you know that climate change isn’t real the way a 3-year-old knows they hate broccoli without having ever tasted it). Here’s a pretty cool video of OCO-2 observations of the way CO2 flows through the atmosphere:

Unlike the other three satellites on the chopping block, DSCOVR—short for Deep Space Climate Observatory—is already orbiting Earth. DSCOVR maintains the United States’ real-time monitoring of solar wind, which can do things like disrupt electric grids, flight communication, and GPS. It informs NOAA’s space weather alerts. The budget says it’s only concerned with the “earth-viewing instruments,” which suggests it’s targeting EPIC. EPIC takes full-Earth pictures every two hours (it’s the first satellite to snap a full picture of the Earth solo) and processes them faster than other satellites. Check out EPIC’s picture of the Moon “photobombing” the Earth. (And yes, we know it looks fake. It isn’t.)

moon crossing earth
DSCOVR captures the moon photoboming the earth. NASA

Think that picture’s cool? Here’s one of DISCOVR capturing an Eclipse.

The black dot is an eclipse in the South Pacific. NASA

But since DSCOVR is already up and running, what would these proposed budget cuts actually do to the satellite? Would some of its instruments keep running? Would the others continue to collect data that no one was paid—or perhaps even allowed—to process? Unclear.

CLARREO Pathfinder
Mock up of the CLARREO Pathfinder orbiting the Earth. NASA

CLARREO Pathfinder, or the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory, is another pre-flight satellite in danger of being cut from NASA’s budget. The project, with a proposed launch date in the early 2020s, has an explicit mandate to monitor Earth so we can better understand climate change. While 97 percent of climate scientists, most doctors, and a growing number of Republican politicians accept the staggering weight of evidence climate change is real and caused by humans, a project designed to better help us detect climate trends, improve climate prediction models, and better prepare our society against the effects of climate change apparently isn’t seen as valuable. Our grandchildren might disagree.

Why wouldn’t we want to know more about the planet that we call home? NASA

The budget summary includes an explanation for the changes, citing a need to focus “…the Nation’s efforts on deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research,” which seems to forget that we can’t live on Mars just yet, and that we know less about the deepest parts of the ocean than we do about our solar system. And while the private sector is more than eager to pick up any slack in the space exploration department, much of the data the aforementioned budget cuts could cost us is not information that companies can monetize—so they’re not likely to pay for ways to collect it. Still, once this research is done (if it does get done) it will likely benefits everyone on the planet.