Liftoff: NASA's Glory Mission Should Advance the Climate Change Debate

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It was announced in January that 2010 was the warmest year on record and this past decade the warmest in the 130 years that scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) have kept records. But the skeptics (and more aggressive climate change deniers) are still out there. In an attempt to finally settle this thing, NASA has been preparing the Glory mission for liftoff.

"Glory will improve the understanding of aerosol contributions to global climate change and help maintain a record of total solar irradiance," NASA explained in the mission overview for Glory. "Data provided by the Glory mission will enhance global climate modeling and help reduce uncertainties associated with the causes and consequences of global climate change."

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With a launch finally scheduled for Wednesday, February 23, the Glory mission will, if all goes according to plan, collect data on the micro-physical, chemical and optical properties of aerosols using two instruments -- an Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (ARS) and a Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) -- that will monitor the climate system and provide new data for scientists working on the issue of climate chance. The APS will collect visible and near-infrared data scattered from aerosols and clouds and the TIM, mounted on a special track that allows it move independent of the satellite, should record total electromagnetic radiation given off by the sun that hits the top of Earth's atmosphere.

"We are trying to achieve better measurements of both aerosols and total solar irradiance in order to calculate the energy budget -- the amount of energy entering and exiting Earth's atmosphere -- as accurately as possible," Michael Mishchenko, Glory's project scientist and a researcher at GISS, told Space Daily.

Scientists already know a great deal about the effect that greenhouse gases have on our planet's climate system, but little is known about aerosol particles, which are emitted every second of every day by the usual, dirty suspects -- campfires, volcanic eruptions, burning fossil fuels and vehicle tailpipes -- but also seemingly innocuous culprits like forests and the huge communities of plankton that fill our seas.

Glory will also be monitoring the electromagnetic radiation given off by the sun because, until now, the solar constant has always been just that, a constant. The sun gives off fluctuating amounts of radiation, some new satellite measurements tell us, over the course of a solar cycle. "Those fluctuations do not explain the global warming the planet has experience in the last few decades," Judith Lean, a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory and a member of Glory's science team, told Space Daily. "However, it's possible -- probably even -- that longer-term solar cycles exist that could have an impact on climate."

All of this new data -- good or bad -- could start spilling in soon. The Taurus CL rocket that will carry the Glory satellite into space arrived at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County over the weekend. As of this writing, the launch of Glory is scheduled for Wednesday.

Images: NASA. All captions are original to NASA's Glory Mission.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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