U.S. Could Lose Aging Eyes in the Sky
About every two weeks, Rick Allen gets a series of thermal snapshots from high above Earth that show how water gets used across the western United States, a perennial source of friction in the largely arid region.
“We see all of the cold spots, which are irrigated fields,” said Allen, the director of the Water Resources Research Program at the University of Idaho. “We take the relative temperatures and transform that into an equivalent of an amount of water used in cubic feet per acre per day, or cubic meters, or inches of depth. We can transform that information into types of units that are used by water managers and state agencies to manage water consumption.”
The stream of data that Allen dips into has been flowing since 1984, when NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite went into orbit. Landsat 5 finally shut down in November, and it successor, Landsat 7, beams back a set of images of Allen’s region to the U.S. Geological Survey every 16 days — but because of a faulty scanner, they come in with black streaks across them. A replacement is being readied for launch, but it’s unlikely to make it aloft before January.
“We’ll be hobbling through the year 2012 using only Landsat 7 with incomplete imagery,” Allen said. “That’s really hurting us badly.”