FAILURE TO LAUNCH: The crash of the Glory satellite last week is the latest setback in NASA's attempts to maintain Earth observations--and expand scientific understanding of climate change. Image: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
The crash Friday of NASA's Glory satellite couldn't have come at a worse time.
The incident is a blow for climate science and the space agency's efforts to rebuild an Earth observation program weakened by years of lean budgets. It also comes during a protracted spending fight on Capitol Hill in which science agencies have become prime targets for House Republicans' budget ax.
According to NASA, problems with Glory's launch vehicle, a Taurus XL rocket, sent the climate probe crashing into the Pacific Ocean early Friday morning. The agency has begun an investigation, expected to take months, into what went wrong (Greenwire, March 4).
Preliminary data suggest that the rocket's fairing, a nose cone designed to shield Glory during the journey through Earth's atmosphere, did not detach the way it was supposed to. A similar problem two years ago caused the crash of another NASA climate satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO).
Both satellites were considered key missions for NASA's Earth observation program, which foundered in recent years as the agency pursued new space exploration projects like the proposed mission to Mars and designing a replacement for the space shuttle.
"Working from space is hard, expensive and risky," NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt wrote Friday on the blog RealClimate, in a post examining the aftermath of the Glory crash. "We cannot take it for granted, and yet we need that information more than ever."
In 2007, the National Academy of Sciences warned that the nation's Earth observing capability was "at great risk" after cumulative rounds of budget cutting. The nation's ability to monitor severe weather, fresh water shortages and climate change all depended on increasing NASA's Earth science budget, the science academy said.
The losses of Glory and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will make rebuilding that capability harder, said Rick Anthes, who co-chaired the committee that wrote the National Academy of Sciences analysis.
"When that survey came out, we expected the OCO and Glory to fly and be part of the foundation of Earth observations," said Anthes, the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
NASA's decision to build and launch a copy of the failed Orbiting Carbon Observatory has taken money away from other key Earth and climate satellite missions, he said, and the loss of Glory could compound that problem.
"With the present budget climate in Washington, where a lot of science is at risk, it's just not good at all," Anthes said. "We really needed Glory to be successful. ... I don't think you can sugarcoat it."
Needed to measure solar impacts on climate
Glory was carrying two instruments that scientists hoped would improve the accuracy of climate models (ClimateWire, Jan. 25).
One, the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM), was designed to extend a 32-year record of fluctuations in the sun's energy output. Those fluctuations can influence Earth's climate over the long term. The amount of sun that reaches Earth, for instance, helps determine the amount of energy that is trapped in Earth's atmosphere by greenhouse gases.
Glory's crash could create a gap in that decades-long record, experts said. The pain is multiplied by the fact that Glory's TIM was three times more accurate than the instrument it was designed to replace. The older TIM is flying aboard NASA's SORCE satellite, now in its eighth year in space. SORCE was designed to last just two and half years, and its batteries are now failing.
"I think it's a significant loss," Anthes said of Glory. "If we don't know how the sun is changing over time, if we don't know the amount of energy coming in at the top of the atmosphere, we're really hamstrung in understanding climate and solar effects on climate."