Busalacchi speaks on next decade of satellite-based Earth observations

ESSIC Director Antonio Busalacchi spoke Oct. 6 at a meeting of the Maryland Space Business Roundtable in Greenbelt. A leader in developing the United States’ agenda for the next decade of space-based Earth science, Busalacchi informed the gathering of scientists, businesspeople and government employees about the challenges and opportunities in store for Earth observations.

With tight budgets at NASA and a long wish list of programs, he said, the nation needs a “robust, resilient and appropriately balanced” plan that will sustain the successes of the last 10 years and also “create a wedge for new missions, new variables, new technologies.”
“We need to identify … the leading Earth system science questions and challenges for the decade ahead,” Busalacchi said.

Busalacchi co-chairs the steering committee for the National Research Council’s (NRC) 2017 Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space, a set of priorities and recommendations for space-based Earth observation through 2027. The field has come a long way since the first survey, published in 2007, he said.

“The program is very viable now,” Busalacchi said in an interview. “Nine, 10 years ago there was some very serious doubt with respect to the declining capability of Earth remote sensing in the United States, and that was rectified.” He mentioned NASA’s Venture-class satellite missions as an example of new science being done more efficiently, in terms of time and money.

Busalacchi also emphasized new opportunities for collaboration in Earth observation, both internationally – “as opposed to 10 years ago, there’s so many more space-faring nations that are doing great science” – and with the private sector.

During his career at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Busalacchi was the source selection official for the Sea-Viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS) instrument as a novel “data buy” for NASA. Launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation in 1997, SeaWiFS gathered data on marine chlorophyll and biology until 2010. Busalacchi hopes to explore whether businesses can expand their role in gathering data from orbit.

The University of Maryland will also contribute to the next decade of Earth observation.

“The university has these pockets of world-class expertise in remote sensing of the planet,” Busalacchi said. Through collaboration, including with nearby NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “we have the potential, and I would argue the responsibility, to be at that front rank” of research. For graduate students, the decadal survey could provide a “glimpse into what the future holds with respect to their career.”

Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences Dean Jayanth Banavar, who attended the MSBR event, praised Busalacchi for opening opportunities for the university.

"Within a six-mile radius of College Park, you will find one of the largest groups
of Earth scientists in the world,” Banavar said. “As part of this tremendous community, faculty and student researchers at the University of Maryland have the opportunity to help shape
the future of Earth observation. … We are fortunate that Tony Busalacchi is leading us in this effort.”

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Director Christopher Scolese, who also attended the event, said Busalacchi presented an exciting glimpse for the scientists, businesspeople and university staff present.

“He laid out a very compelling rationale for the decadal survey, and … for Maryland,” Scolese said.

The NRC has put out a request for community white papers to inform the decadal survey, with submissions preferred by Nov. 2.

“We hope that the community in this larger sense across, all the disciplines – atmosphere, ocean, land, application areas, human health – that these various sectors of our science come forward with the leading science questions,” Busalacchi said.