The Jason-3 ocean-altimetry satellite launched Jan. 17 is the fourth in a series of spacecraft that since 1993 have provided an uninterrupted record of rising sea level heights, a key climate-change metric. Climatologists everywhere view it as indispensable to their work.

But looking back on 22 years of continuous data flow, what’s most striking is how often the program nearly died traversing not one, but a series of death valleys owing to financial and political issues in the United States or in Europe.

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members of the media setup remote cameras for the Jan. 16 SpaceX falcon 9 launch of Jason-3 from vandenberg Air Force Base Space Launch Complex 4 East in California. Credit: NASA/BILL INGALLS

Why Jason Matters

The complicated relations between NASA and NOAA; between France and the other members of the European Space Agency, and between ESA and the European Commission all entered the Jason saga as disruptive factors.

In the end, the most constant backers — the ones that came to the rescue on each occasion — were two research and development agencies whose natural inclination is to steer clear of forevermore programs like Jason.

That NASA and the French space agency, CNES, would continue to invest in what are basically recurrentmodel satellites was never assumed when the program was developed in the 1980s.

At various points along the way, both attempted to exit gracefully, encouraging those that would make operational use of the data — meteorological organizations in Europe and the United States, the European Commission, and at one point even the U.S. Navy — to chip in.

For a NASA or ESA purist, it must seem like a violation of first principles for Michael H. Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, to say on the eve of the Jason-3 launch:

“For nearly 30 years now [NASA and CNES] have explored the cutting-edge technologies and delivered precision measurements in the area of ocean altimetry.”

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Cutting edge? It’s hard to see Jason-3 that way, just as it’s hard to see the 2016 Toyota Camry as “cutting edge” compared to the 2015 model. No: What has happened here is that NASA and CNES have scrapped their mission catechism in service to a good cause. Would anyone today dispute the decision?

The cadence of Jason satellite launches since 1992 looks like a rational launch manifest; in fact it is not. The Jason satellites are designed to last only three years in orbit, with the assumption of a five-year life in the absence of dramatic event in orbit.

Given the system’s importance, Jason spacecraft should have been ordered in series and readied for launch according to that nominal-lifespan schedule. That didn’t happen. Launch delays are common. But for the Jason series the long periods between launches — nine years from Top ex-Poseidon to Jason-1, seven years until Jason-2 and then another 7.5 years before Jason-3 — were almost all due to the inability of the participating agencies to gather the required financing to move the next satellite to the launch pad.

With each passing year, more and more users — both civil and military, as Jason data is delivered to anyone — began using the data for their everyday activities, and the world’s two leading meteorological agencies — the 30-nation Eumetsat and NOAA — decided that they could not fulfill their mission without Jason data.

“I think it was Topex-Poseidon’s view of El Nino that caught people’s attention,” said Marc Pircher, director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Center. “When Topex saw that, people started thinking, ‘We can make serious use of this in our daily operations.’” The entry of NOAA and Eumetsat into the Jason program provided a glimmer of hope that, at last, a stable sponsor team had been assembled.

But it wasn’t enough. NASA and NOAA Jason funding dramas — the U.S. side is responsible for the launch of the satellites since Jason-1 — are never more than a year’s budget cycle away, and in Europe Jason has had problems finding budgetary traction even with CNES and Eumetsat backing.

Sensing the funding instability, the two meteorological satellite agencies conditioned their Jason-2 support on NASA and CNES remaining in the funding mix.

In 2004, CNES President Yannick d’Escatha found it necessary to hold French support for diverse ESA programs hostage pending ESA backing of Jason-3. D’Escatha, who even then was uncomfortable with the idea of CNES funding a never-ending series of satellites, said CNES support for Jason-3 would consist mainly of a spare satellite platform, already purchased by CNES from builder Thales Alenia Space, which CNES would contribute to Jason-3 free of charge.

Germany did not want ESA entering Jason-3, fearing it would set a precedent for other struggling national or bilateral Earth observation programs to seek an ESA life buoy whenever they ran into budget trouble.

Solution: Create a post-Jason-3 program using ESA and, eventually, Eumetsat funding, combined with NASA and NOAA support for the launches and some payload instruments, with France no longer in the driver’s seat on the European side.

As a result, in May 2015 ESA contracted with Airbus Defence and Space to build a next-generation Jason satellite, called Jason-CS, for Continuity of Service, which with European Commission backing could be inserted into Europe’s Copernicus environment-monitoring program. Copernicus, too, is a forever program and is owned by the commission.

Eumetsat governments agreed in December 2015 to pay a minority share of the Jason-CS cost, but a large share of the second Jason-CS satellite. The European Commission has put Jason firmly into the Copernicus line of Sentinel satellites, calling it Sentinel-6.

Jason-3 is now safely in orbit and Jason-CS/Sentinel-6A is under contract for a launch in 2020 or 2021, depending on whether Jason-3’s health at the time. A nearly identical satellite is also being built as part of the same contract and will be ready for launch in 2025 or 2026.

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In the SpaceX Payload processing Facility at Vandenberg Air Force base in California, the jason-3 satellite is prepared for encapslation in its payload faring. Credit: NASA

In the SpaceX Payload processing Facility at Vandenberg Air Force base in California, the Jason-3 satellite is prepared for encapslation in its payload faring. Credit: NASA

A Jason mission without at least some funding uncertainty wouldn’t be the same, and it’s true that the NASA/NOAA commitment, while made informally, has yet to be put into the agencies’ budget. Jason backers expect the White House to make that request to the U.S. Congress in the coming weeks.

Once that occurs, the Jason mission will be on stable footing for the first time in 30 years. Its 10,000 current users are most heavily concentrated in the United States, France, China and India. Another decade’s use of the data may make them candidates for funding assistance when the time comes.

Looking to their trailblazing mandates, NASA and CNES are moving onward. The Surface Water Ocean Topography satellite — 14 times the electrical power of Jason, capable of measuring lake and river heights in addition to oceans — is tentatively scheduled for launch in 2020. It includes several leaps of technology and is currently budgeted at about $1.1 billion — nearly four times the cost of Jason-3.

Following the COP21 conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which ended Dec. 11 in Paris, the world’s governments moved a small step closer to endorsing credible, verifiable measures of greenhouse emissions.

A globally acknowledged system to verify national CO2 or methane emissions will almost certainly involve satellites owned by multiple nations.

Participants could do worse than reading the Jason history for guidance of what to do, and what not.

Valleys of death are surely ahead.