Worried that proposed cuts to the multi-billion commercial satellite imagery budget may be too deep, the White House has ordered a study to determine how much can or should be cut. The study is being led by Roger Mason, associate director for systems and resource analyses in the Office of Director of National Intelligence, and Kevin Meiners, acting deputy undersecretary of intelligence for portfolio, programs and resources. It should be done by April.

While most of NASA is looking up to the stars, scientist Michael Goodman is staring down at Earth, focusing this week on monster Hurricane Irene about to slam into the East Coast with a vengeance as soon as Friday.

Goodman, 55, NASA’s go-to guy for natural disasters and hazards, is defying the stereotypes about the space agency. He’s always focused on the ground, coordinating the space agency’s response to earthbound catastrophes. NASA has been involved in earth research since the 1960s.

“We’re constantly imaging the earth. If a significant event occurs, that data can be processed and made available,” Goodman, an atmospheric scientist in NASA’s Earth Science Division, told AOL Government. “Our role is to provide spaceborne and airborne observations and data analyses that can assist in damage assessment and aid in the recovery.”

NASA is not chasing hurricanes, but is using its arsenal of 14 orbiting satellites to develop new technologies or to use current ones to better measure the characteristics of hurricanes and the conditions that produce them. The information is made available to front-line agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help them develop better forecasts.

Our role is to provide spaceborne and airborne observations and data analyses that can assist in damage assessment and aid in the recovery.

Hurricane warnings are already posted from Florida to Boston. The Category 3 hurricane is expected to touch down in North Carolina late Friday. The path of the storm is expected to be catastrophic. And a NASA satellite is on the job taking regular images of Irene as it barrels north from the Bahamas.

NASA’s satellites are often able to get better and different images than NOAA’s satellites, complementing, not duplicating, Goodman said. The space agency is constantly improving computing power efficiencies aboard satellites and improved optic technologies.

The satellites use a variety of different remote sensing techniques including visible, infrared, passive and active microwave, synthetic aperture radar and lidar (optical remote sensing technology) to take the images. They are never called pictures.

The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite that is watching Irene uses an instrument known as the Precipitation Radar that can “see” through the clouds to measure the core of strongest hot towers of convection and updrafts.

As Hurricane Irene picked up steam this week in the Caribbean, the satellite began taking images of the storm on its regular north-south run of the Western Hemisphere. They pass over the same location only twice a day on its daily run, Goodman said.

The raw images are downloaded to tracking stations on the ground, analyzed, distributed to the proper agency and are available online, he said.

NASA works closely with several federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), NOAA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to provide imagery and data analyses for use by first responders in any kind of a disaster.

“If we know there’s a particular area we want to focus on, we can command the satellite to take the images. In some cases, we may want to compare the post-disaster with a pre-disaster image,” he said.

NASA’s fiscal 2011 Earth Science budget is $1.8 billion for the operations of existing satellites, Earth science research and analyses, and the development, launch, and operations of new satellite and instruments.

It recently took images for a host of other disasters, including:

  • NASA provided full views of the Gulf of Mexico four times a day in 2010 for six months to track the evolution of the oil slick from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
  • NASA satellites mapped the extent of the 2011 Mississippi River spring floods. The Department of Homeland Security used the maps to plan their flood mitigation operations and to aid in the flood assessment and recovery.
  • On April 27, 2011, a series of strong tornadic squall lines passed through Alabama and the surrounding states with over 50 tornadoes alone in Alabama. NASA images were instrumental in helping the National Weather Service locate, measure and evaluate the tracks of many of these tornadoes in the post-disaster phase.

NASA is the eyes for international disasters, too. Recent images included the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake and the eruption of the Icelandic volcano that spewed ash across Europe, both in 2010.

NASA imaging is used regularly by scientists to predict future disasters. But that comes with a dose of caution.

“In predicting the future, we’re only slightly better than the economists,” Goodman said.

Judi Hasson is an award-winning journalist who writes about technology and all things government.