New Earth-observing Satellite to Address Climate Uncertainties

New Earth-observing Satellite to Address Climate Uncertainties

WASHINGTON, DC, January 20, 2011 (ENS) – NASA is about to launch an Earth-observing satellite with new technology onboard designed to broaden our understanding of how the Sun and tiny atmospheric particles called aerosols affect Earth’s climate. Aerosols represent one of the greatest areas of uncertainty in understanding Earth’s climate system.

Called Glory, the mission is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California early in the morning of February 23.

“Glory is going to help scientists tackle one of the major uncertainties in climate change predictions identified by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: the influence of aerosols on the energy balance of our planet,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

Artist’s rendering of the Glory satellite in Low-Earth orbit (Image courtesy NASA)

Glory also will extend a legacy of long-term solar measurements needed to address other key uncertainties about climate change.

“This mission also marks the first satellite launch under President Obama’s climate initiative that will advance the United States’ contribution to cutting-edge and policy-relevant climate change science,” Freilich said.

Glory will join a fleet of other Earth-observing satellites that fly in tight formation. NASA scientists call them the “Afternoon Constellation” or “A-train” of satellites.

“The spacecraft is in place at the launch and all of the post-shipment inspections and electrical tests have been completed,” said Bryan Fafaul, Glory project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The spacecraft will be mated to Orbital Science’s Taurus XL 3110 rocket next month.

The mission carries two primary instruments, the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor and the Total Irradiance Monitor. APS will improve measurement of aerosols, the airborne particles that can influence climate by reflecting and absorbing solar radiation and modifying clouds and precipitation.

APS will collect data at nine different wavelengths, from the visible to short-wave infrared, giving scientists a much-improved understanding of aerosols.

NASA’s first Earth-orbiting polarimeter, APS will help scientists distinguish between natural and human-produced aerosols. The information will be used to refine global climate models and help scientists determine how our planet is responding to human activities.

The TIM instrument will maintain and improve upon a 32-year record of total solar irradiance, a value that fluctuates slightly as the Sun cycles through periods of varying intensity approximately every 11 years.

While scientists have concluded that solar variability is not the main cause of the warming observed on Earth in recent decades, the Sun has historically caused long-term climate changes. Having a baseline of the solar energy that reaches Earth gives us a way to evaluate future climate changes.

Better measurements of total solar irradiance give scientists another way to test their climate models and understand the Sun’s longer cyclical changes and how they may impact the climate here on Earth.

Roland Coelho and Ryan Nugent, aerospace engineering students at California Polytechnic State University, integrate a CubeSat into a deployer container. (Photo courtesy The CubeSat Project)

Glory will fly in a low-Earth orbit 438 miles above the planet’s surface. After launch, mission operators will conduct verification tests for 30 days and then begin to collect data for at least three years.

Glory’s launch rocket also will carry into orbit a secondary payload – NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellite, or ELaNA, mission.

This mission will put three small research satellites, called CubeSats, into orbit for Montana State University, the University of Colorado and a consortium of state universities called Kentucky Space.

The CubeSats are in a class of small research spacecraft called picosatellites. They have a size of four cubic inches, a volume of about one quart and weigh no more than 2.2 pounds.

The Kentucky vehicle, KySat-1, includes a camera to support a scientific outreach program intended for, but not limited to, Kentucky students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Montana State’s CubeSat, Explorer 1 Prime, or E1P, honors the scientific discoveries of the Explorer-1 mission, which detected the Van Allen radiation belts more than 50 years ago. E1P will carry a miniature Geiger tube to measure the intensity and variability of the electrons in the Van Allen belts.

University of Colorado’s satellite, Hermes, is on a mission to improve CubeSat communications through the on-orbit testing of a high data-rate communication system that will allow the downlink of large quantities of data.

The CubeSat Project is a international collaboration of over 40 universities, high schools, and private firms developing picosatellites containing scientific, private, and government payloads. In addition to piggybacking on the Glory launch, CubeSats are being launched on decomissioned Russian rockets, through companies like Eurokot and Kosmotras. Launch costs currently translate to about $40,000 per single cube for the developer.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.

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