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Researchers Assail High Cost of Satellite Photos

Times Science Writer

Satellite photographs of the Earth as seen from space have played a key role in helping scientists understand the planet, but they are so expensive that many researchers now find them beyond reach, scientists said here Tuesday.

The cost “has devastated the research community,” said David Pieri, a volcanologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. As a result, there is a significant lack of data in fields such as soil erosion, pollution measurement and the study of volcanoes.

From $900 to $3,300

Other scientists attending the International Geological Congress here agreed. “It started at $900 in 1978" for an image of an area on the ground measuring 100 miles by 100 miles, said Ted Maxwell of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. The cost has now climbed to $3,300.

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“What you get for that is one frame on one day,” Maxwell added.

Pieri blamed the spiraling cost on the government’s decision to turn the program over to private enterprise, but a spokesman for EOSAT, the firm that operates Landsat, sharply disagreed.

In fact, the spokesman insisted, the price charged scientists for Landsat images has dropped, not risen, since the firm took over in September, 1985.

At that time, said EOSAT spokesman Richard Mroczynski, the government was charging $4,300 for one complete image.

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“The users were beginning to drop off,” he said. “We thought the price was a little too robust” and it was lowered, he added.

But at $3,300, the current cost becomes prohibitive when repeated photographs are needed in order to study changes in the Earth’s environment, Pieri said.

The situation is not likely to improve in the immediate future, although the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hopes to have a network of Earth observation satellites operating by the end of the next decade.

Scientists contend that there is no other way to get quality data on some events. Not even a volcanologist, for example, is eager to stand on top of a volcano when it is about to erupt, so the only way to collect continuous data during the eruption is from an orbiting satellite.

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Jerry C. Ritchie of the Department of Agriculture has a less dangerous but equally difficult problem. He is charged with monitoring soil erosion and pollution in lakes across the United States.

“There are 2 1/2 million lakes in the U.S.” Ritchie said. “You can’t send someone to every one of them.”

Again, satellite images could solve the problem, revealing on a national scale where critical problems are beginning to develop. The same holds true for soil erosion, one of the nation’s most serious agricultural problems, because each year 13 billion to 14 billion tons of precious topsoil wash out to sea or into lakes, Ritchie added.

Yet despite the seriousness of that problem, only one state, Oklahoma, pays the price of monitoring via satellite its entire agricultural region.

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Ritchie said Oklahoma gets 20 images, three or four times a year, despite the cost.

“It’s cheaper than putting a man out there on every lake,” he said.

The JPL’s Pieri is working on a proposal for NASA to create a modest “orbiting volcano observatory” that would let scientists monitor volcanoes around the world. Such a program might even be able to detect when an eruption is about to occur, he said.


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