Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Over the past 50 years, thousands of satellites have been sent into space on missions to collect data about the Earth. Today, the ability to forecast weather, climate, and natural hazards depends critically on these satellite-based observations. At the request of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Research Council convened a committee to examine the scientific accomplishments that have resulted from space-based observations. This report describes how the ability to view the entire globe at once, uniquely available from satellite observations, has revolutionized Earth studies and ushered in a new era of multidisciplinary Earth sciences. In particular, the ability to gather satellite images frequently enough to create "movies" of the changing planet is improving the understanding of Earth's dynamic processes and helping society to manage limited resources and environmental challenges. The report concludes that continued Earth observations from space will be required to address scientific and societal challenges of the future.

Key Messages

  • Over the past 50 years, space observations of the Earth have accelerated the cross-disciplinary integration of analysis, interpretation, and, ultimately, our understanding of the dynamic processes that govern the planet. Given this momentum, the next decades will bring more remarkable discoveries and the capability to predict Earth processes, critical to protect human lives and property.
  • Providing full and open access to global data to an international audience more fully capitalizes on the investment in satellite technology and creates a more interdisciplinary and integrated Earth science community. International data sharing and collaborations on satellite missions lessen the burden on individual nations to maintain Earth observational capacities.
  • Satellite observations often reveal known phenomena and processes to be more complex than previously understood. This brings to the fore the indisputable benefits of multiple synergistic observations, including orbital, suborbital, and in situ measurements, linked with the best models available.
  • The full benefits of satellite observations of Earth are realized only when the essential infrastructure, such as models, computing facilities, ground networks, and trained personnel, is in place.
  • The scientific advances resulting from Earth observations from space illustrate the successful synergy between science and technology.
  • To assess global change quantitatively, synoptic data sets with long time series are required. The value of the data increases significantly with seamless and intercalibrated time series, which highlight the benefits of follow-on missions.
  • The daily synoptic global view of Earth, uniquely available from satellite observations, has revolutionized Earth studies and ushered in a new era of multidisciplinary Earth sciences, with an emphasis on dynamics at all accessible spatial and temporal scales, even in remote areas. This new capability plays a critically important role in helping society manage planetary-scale resources and environmental challenges.