U.S. Satellite Fleet in Crisis

The National Academy of Sciences is warning that the nation’s satellite fleet is in need of a serious upgrade. According to the latest report of the academy’s National Research Council (NRC), U.S. satellites are aging and many will soon reach the end of their life expectancy, even as plans to replace them have been delayed by budget cutbacks and other technical difficulties. NASA officials responded to the NRC report calling it “overly pessimistic” and pointing out that satellites frequently outlive their projected expiration dates.

Of the 22 satellites or satellite systems operated by NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), only 6 may be still in orbit by the end of this decade. New satellite missions have been scrubbed or have met with other setbacks and delays. In 2009 and 2011, there were two significant launch failures of satellites. In a similar report in 2007, the NRC had recommended 17 satellite launches for the coming 10-year period; half way into this phase, only 2 are even scheduled.

We have all grown quite accustomed to the benefits of Earth-observing satellites, whether we realize it or not. Besides GPS for navigation, there’s satellite TV (even cable TV uses satellites), Doppler radar for weather forecasting, and oh, yeah—cell phones. Although military and intelligence satellites are not at risk, those that gather scientific data and beam it down to earth 24/7 are facing a dire situation. A rapid decline in their capability will affect agriculture, forestry, geology, oceanography, and climatology, among others. Hurricane and tornado tracking depend on satellites, and without them the ability to issue advance warnings would mean far greater destruction and loss of life as a result of such storms.

Image credit: © NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz

Related Links

  • U.S. Could Lose Aging Eyes in the Sky
    This article covers the critical situation of the decline in Earth-observing satellites.
    (Source: CNN, May 20, 2012)
  • Our View of Earth from Space Is in Danger
    Read about the “dire situation” of aging U.S. satellites; includes a photo gallery with instructive captions describing the functions of the many and varied types of satellites from which we gain global info.
    (Source: Wired, May 7, 2012)
  • How Satellites Work
    Learn the nuts and bolts (and apogees, gyroscopes, accelerometers …) of satellites—how they work, what they do, even how to spot and track one yourself.
    (Source: How Stuff Works; accessed May 31, 2012)
  • Radar, Drones Could Offset Aging Satellites during Hurricane Season
    This article focuses especially on how weather forecasting and storm tracking would be affected not only by the loss of satellite capabilities but by the use of unmanned drones.
    (Source: WTSP.com, May 24, 2012)
  • Rapid Decline in U.S. Satellites Could Be Costly
    Check out this site for constantly updated news and views on the science of the Earth and the cosmos; includes photos and a link to download the original NRC report.
    (Source: EarthSky, May 8, 2012)


  1. Jackson says:


  2. Jackson says:

    I like his article

  3. Austin says:

    cool beans

  4. David Dume says:

    article sucks

  5. joejoe monkey says:

    interesting that the goverment wont do anything

  6. 355421 says:

    The gover mant should realy up grade that stelate

    • Auth says:

      Call me old-fashioned, but I still don’t know what was so wrong with maps in the first place. My map cost me $20 five years ago and is still going strong. If I’m lost I have to aclluaty stop and read it, but that’s safer anyway since by definition I don’t know where I’m going.

  7. daisha says:

    this articl was good

    • Diana says:

      I always carry a map as a bakcup, and I always check my route in detail before departing, but the onboard navigation devices are highly useful. For one thing, unless things go badly, you don’t need to stop to read that map. For another, at night it’s often very difficult to navigate with a lack of road identification signs and even an unawareness of what direction you’re going. I have personal experience with my family driving over an hour and a half along a road in Colorado only to discover that we ended up in Utah when we were actually searcing for Wyoming. Whoops. The onboard navigation would have fixed that very quickly.But I also agree that map-reading skills are falling on poor times. Even amongst some of my colleagues, I often wonder how they ever get from A to B without GPS, because they don’t seem to be able to tell one end of a map from another.I’m sure there is cognitive research out there that talks about who reads maps better, and why, but I regard it as a fundamental skill for anyone who drives; as much so or more than operating the vehicle.

  8. jose the awsome says:

    It is a good atical

  9. Alyssa says:

    Wow thats messed up on how the goverment won’t do anything about it. 🙁

  10. ski jumper says:

    they should do something about it 🙁 🙁

  11. Arturo says:

    They should do something about it :(:(

  12. billy says:

    fo’ real

  13. kenneth says:

    the government can’t be serious