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."
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.
"We would get the regional picture," Ramanathan said. "Now, we won't. We will only have the local picture. I am really upset."
Scientists weren't the only ones pontificating on the Glory crash, however.
Conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh waded into the fray during his Friday radio show. Limbaugh said the failed Glory launch is evidence of a "regime" within NASA to suppress information about the causes of climate change.
"This is the second such crash, the second failure of a NASA satellite to make orbit to measure global warming stuff," Limbaugh said. "Now, I have a theory about this. I have a theory. Well, they can now continue the lie without having direct controvertible evidence that they are spreading a lie."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500