Greg Kopp, a scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, laboratory that developed the TIM instrument, said he's also "very worried about maintaining the existing 32-year [solar energy] record with the required good stability and accuracy needed for climate science."
Experts said NASA has at least three options to avert a potential data gap. Kopp said the agency could assemble spare parts for a new version of TIM and fly a replacement instrument on a satellite already under construction. That could be done in less than two years if NASA can identify a probe to host the TIM replacement.
Meanwhile, Erik Richard, another scientist at the same University of Colorado lab, said NASA could opt to accelerate its planned launch of the instrument designed to replace Glory's TIM. Richard said his lab will finish building that instrument by the end of 2012, although it's not expected to be sent into space until 2015. "Since it's early with the Glory failure, there may be a lot of shuffling," he said.
In the meantime, Richard and his colleagues submitted paperwork Friday to extend the operational life of the SORCE satellite from 2012 to 2014. With Glory gone, Richard said NASA may opt to shut down SORCE's instruments except for its solar energy-measuring TIM.
That could keep the SORCE instrument running and achieve enough overlap with data from a new European solar energy-measuring satellite, PICARD, to ward off a data gap. It's not a sure thing. The French team in charge of PICARD, which launched in June 2010, still hasn't released data from the satellite's solar energy monitor. As for SORCE, "another two years is an optimistic plan," Richard said. "As with all of these older satellites, you never know what will crop up."
Aerosol puzzle continues
Glory was also carrying an instrument to measure how tiny particles called aerosols influence Earth's climate.
Different types of aerosols behave differently in the atmosphere. Some reflect sunlight, cooling the climate, while others absorb heat from the sun, warming the climate. Aerosols also affect the climate indirectly, by influencing the behavior of clouds and patterns of precipitation.
Glory's Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor would have allowed researchers to distinguish between the types and amounts of different aerosols in the atmosphere, something existing instruments can't do. That's crucial because scientists believe that aerosols exert an influence on the climate roughly equal to that of greenhouse gases, but that estimate carries a large margin of error -- "at least a factor of two, if not more," said V. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Ramanathan said the loss of Glory's APS would affect his ongoing work to determine the climate impact of one type of aerosol, black carbon, which is produced by burning fossil fuels and biofuels like wood and dung.
Tiny particles of black carbon are potent, though short-lived, warmers. They absorb heat from sunlight, warming surrounding air and, when they fall from the atmosphere onto ice or snow, hastening melting. With policymakers increasingly interested in cutting black carbon to help limit the severity of climate change, "the Glory instrument was going to really take us to the next stage in settling the debate, and quantifying it better," Ramanathan said.
The scientist said he had also planned on using data from Glory in an experiment next fall that is designed to examine how deposits of dust are affecting the annual spring snowmelt in the Colorado Rockies.
Recent field research by Tom Painter, a snow hydrologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggests that dust produced by poor agricultural practices is causing the snowpack that feeds the Colorado River to melt earlier and reduces the amount of water that reaches the river.
Ramanathan and Painter had planned to fly three unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with aerosol-monitoring sensors over a 4-square-mile area of the Rockies next fall. By comparing the data collected by the UAVs with data from Glory's aerosol sensor, the scientists believed they'd be able to extend their analysis to cover the entire Rockies.