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Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2005. Extending the Effective Lifetimes of Earth Observing Research Missions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11485.


Spaceborne observations enable a substantial portion of the research performed by the Earth and space science communities. Within the United States, most spaceborne observations intended for scientific research are funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), although the ultimate beneficiaries include the greater scientific community, the broad spectrum of “users” employing applications derived from science, and the general public.

Traditionally, scientific satellite missions are planned and funded on the basis of a paradigm that assumes a nominal operational lifetime. It is common, however, for such missions to exceed their planned lifetime through a combination of good design and simple statistical luck.1 Although the intended scientific objectives may have been completed within this period, the opportunity for providing additional science or other benefits at a relatively low cost by extending the mission is often significant.

Today, NASA operates within very constrained resources, and the budget needed for extended mission operations is typically not included in the nominal mission plan. If a decision is made to extend a mission, NASA must either seek new funding or reallocate funding from other programs. Even the relatively low cost of additional mission operations must be weighed on a mission-by-mission basis against the use of those resources for developing new observational capabilities.

A formal, uniformly applied review process for mission extension, known as the Senior Review, has been employed in the space sciences for many years.2 In contrast, until recently, decisions at NASA on Earth science mission extensions have been made on a case-by-case basis without the benefit of a standardized process. While this approach has been adequate for many missions, the recent controversies over termination or extension of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite mission and the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission3 placed the need for a structured mission-extension process in the spotlight. Furthermore, the successful launch of multiple Earth-observing missions over the past decade4 has created a situation in which a large number of satellites will reach the end of their planned lifetimes in the near future. The establishment of a mission-extension process that is appropriate for the Earth sciences has thus become increasingly important to NASA.


For Earth science missions, nominal lifetimes are typically 1 to 5 years. Actual lifetimes are occasionally shorter, but usually exceed the nominal lifetime. For example, the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite mission, launched in 1984, had a design life of 2 years, but the nonscanning part of its Earth radiation budget experiment instrument and its Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment II instrument, which provides near-global measurements of atmospheric aerosols, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and water vapor, are still operational.


According to NASA briefings to the committee, the process was introduced for NASA astrophysics missions in 1988 and expanded in the 1990s for all space science disciplines.


See Physics Today, “Cost Cuts Kill Climate Satellite,” October 2001; and National Research Council, Assessment of the Benefits of Extending the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission: A Perspective from the Research and Operations Communities, Interim Report, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2004.


A total of 17 Earth science missions were in operation at the time this report was completed.

Suggested Citation:"1 Introduction." National Research Council. 2005. Extending the Effective Lifetimes of Earth Observing Research Missions. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11485.
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While NASA Earth Science missions are planned on the basis of a specified lifetime, often they are able to function beyond the end of that period. Until recently NASA had no formal mechanism for determining whether those missions should be extended or whether the resources necessary for the extension should be applied to new missions. In August 2004, when NASA merged Earth and space sciences, the agency began using the Science Review process to make those extension determinations. NASA had asked the NRC to assess extension review processes, and after the merger, this study focused on the Science Review process. This report presents an assessment of that process and provides recommendations for adapting it to Earth Science missions.


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