Sunday, June 17, 2007

Predictive Blogging: Hurricanes And Satellites

Fairly recently, a story started circulating in technical blogs and websites about the immanent failure of the QuikScat satellite. Although this story has had some limited discussion on some news sources, it has not really hit the mainstream.

The story got a bit more press when Bill Proenza, director of the National Hurricane Center, was outspokenly critical of the situation. In particular, Proenza claimed that the accuracy of hurricane prediction could be reduced by up to 16 percent. Needless to say, according to The Miami Herald, Proenza has been officially reprimanded for his comments, in a three page letter. This event gave the story a little more momentum, although it has yet to hit the mainstream.

A few social/political commentary blogs have picked up the story so far. See for example, Republic of Sesakastan, Rants from the Rookery and Multifarious Ramblings. By and large, the reporting on these blogs has been reasonably responsible, albeit with an Anti-Bush slant. However, if this story gets out into the more general, politically correct, ideologically engaged blogs, the facts of the matter are likely to become obscured by the various agendas. I anticipate that there will be posts on these blogs which will follow roughly the following schema:

"QuikScat will fail...Hurricane Season...Kartina...Money...War in Iraq. Damn Bush and his cronies...what about Gulf Coast residents?...Republican agenda...Irresponsibility...Something should be done...[ad nausiam]"

This pattern is all too familiar on too many blogs, including some who claim academic credentials. While I do not necessarily disagree with the sentiments expressed, what I hate is when the facts are got wrong. This story has every potential to be misunderstood, or worse co-opted, in order to further the agendas. When this kind of thing happens, it really annoys me. So, as a service against the potential future postings of these fools, in what follows, I will try and lay out a few of the basic facts of the matter. Interested readers may also wish to consult the lively and informed discussion available at SlashDot (people who work with QuikScat also have contributed there, which makes this an especially valuable resource).

QuikScat was launched in 1999, as an emergency replacement for the NASA Scatterometer (NSCAT) instrument on Japan’s Midori satellite (previously known as the Advanced Earth Observation Satellite (ADEOS)). This satellite failed, about nine months after launch. QuikScat was supposed to be a 'quick and dirty' stop gap measure, with a limited intended life span, of at most two or three years.

In the words of an insider,

"It [QuikScat] was built in 13 months (hence the Quik) from spares from the one already in process, modified to fit on a commercially available satellite bus (Ball BCP2000) and launched on a surplus obsolete TitanII the AirForce had sitting around....

The instrument was designed as part of an effort to collect 10 years or more of continuous data as part of an overall "understand the interactions of air and sea" program. So JPL developed a ground data system oriented towards that need (hosted at PODAAC). As it happens, we also had a real time feed of the data to NOAA (think of a "tee" early in the data pipeline), which, it turns out, has been very useful in the forecast business (back in 1999 and earlier, when this was all being done, people weren't sure it would be useful.. certainly not to the point of kicking in large sums of money to that end..). It took several years for the forecast community to start heavily using QS data (they were justifiably nervous about depending on an experimental satellite that was never intended to run this long...)"

So, when this satellite was put up, it was at best a short term hack. Furthermore, at the time, the usefulness of the data was not fully appreciated. When these facts are combined with the length of time usually required for a satellite deployment (normally around 8 years, or so), in conjunction with cost, it is really not too surprising that there is no replacement for QuikScat, as yet.

There are also other issues. For instance, such satellites often involve the interaction of numerous government agencies. These interaction can be complex, especially when it comes to figuring out the responsibility for funding such projects. A second factor is the increase in hurricane awareness that has arisen since Hurricanes Kartina and (the often forgotten) Rita. This change in perception could not have been predicted.

So, if the ideologically engaged bloggers start wailing about the failure of QuikScat and blaming it on War spending, do not be fooled. Although their sentiments may be laudable, their facts are likely to be seriously wrong. There are plenty of real issues that the current administration should be criticised for. This is just not one of them, although it has a nice emotive ring to it. Sometimes, knowing a little about what one is talking about, in conjunction with a bit of philosophical insight, can be rather useful.

The CP


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