Earth Data Satellites May Shut Down for Lack of Funds

Times Staff Writer

Landsat, the private U.S. satellite system that provides photographs of Earth for government and private industry, may shut down this month because the government has cut off funding.

The system, owned by a joint venture of Hughes Aircraft and General Electric, operates two satellites in low Earth orbit and markets the photographs to a variety of customers, such as major oil exploration firms and environmental agencies.

"This is beyond belief," Peter M. P. Norris, executive vice president of Earth Observation Satellite Co. (EOSAT), the joint venture, said in a statement. "The Landsat program provides important environmental data that touches on projects throughout the world, and Landsat data continuity is critical."

System Is 'Privatized'

The system was formerly owned and operated by the federal government, but the Reagan Administration decided in the early 1980s to "privatize" the system by turning over the existing satellites to EOSAT.

That effort is now widely regarded as a failure, since it gave competing nations an opportunity to overtake U.S. leadership in the technology. Reagan Administration officials also wanted to sell the nation's weather satellites, but Congress blocked that effort.

Under the privatization plan, EOSAT was supposed to receive annual subsidies to operate the system for 10 years, but Norris asserted the government has not lived up to that commitment.

"They reneged on their contract," he said in a telephone interview.

Funds Expire March 31

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has advised EOSAT that funding for Landsat operations will expire March 31 and that "no funding will be requested for the operation of the satellites."

EOSAT reportedly needs about $10 million to keep Landsat operating for the rest of the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, Norris said.

Under a proposed schedule for the shutdown of the system, the two satellites would be put on internal control and communication with Earth would be terminated on March 27. Government officials cautioned that re-establishing contact may be impossible afterwards.

In addition to shutting down the existing satellites, more than 2 million archive images of Earth will no longer be available to users because the company will cease marketing operations, it said.

Plans to Testify

In the meantime, however, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee has called a hearing for Tuesday to look into ways of saving the satellite system. Norris said he plans to testify at the hearing.

EOSAT operates two satellites, Landsats 4 and 5, which provide photos for such purposes as mineral exploration, checking soil conditions and vegetation, urban and rural planning, monitoring volcanoes and tracing ocean currents. Norris said $1 billion has been invested in the two satellites scheduled to be shut down.

EOSAT has struggled financially in recent years, however, facing strong competition from the French SPOT-Image satellite system and also the possibility of civilian sales of Earth-sensing satellite images by the Soviet Union.

But the U.S. Landsat system is considered superior in technology to either the Soviet or French system. Landsat's satellite sensors, built by Hughes Aircraft, are capable of capturing images in seven infrared light bands, compared to the French system that essentially operates only in the visible light spectrum, a Hughes spokesman said.

Nonetheless, the federal government has run out of money to operate the system.

"We simply do not have the funds at this point to continue their operation beyond the end of this month," Thomas N. Pyke Jr., head of NOAA's satellite office, told the Associated Press.

"We have gone to the other federal agencies who make use of Landsat data and asked them if they can help with the continued funding of Landsat operations, but as of today we have received no additional funds from any source," Pyke said.

An improved satellite, Landsat 6, is under construction, a Hughes official told The Times. That project will continue because funds were provided to complete and launch that satellite.

Under the original plan, the government would subsidize EOSAT until Landsat 6 is launched, which is scheduled for July, 1991. By cutting off funding now, the government wants EOSAT to discontinue service for two years until Landsat 6 begins operation, Norris said.

"It is crazy," he said.

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