NASA’s Climate-Watching “Glory” Satellite Launches This Week

By Andrew Moseman | February 22, 2011 1:56 pm

Starting this week, NASA will have a new eye in the sky to better sort out the way that greenhouse gases, air pollution, and solar activity interact to affect the climate of our planet. The Glory satellite, currently set to launch on Friday, will spy on changes both in our atmosphere and in the sun.

Its main job will be to study fine airborne particles known as aerosols. Smaller than the diameter of a human hair, these specks can move great distances across the globe and are largely responsible for hazy skies. [The New York Times]

Greenhouse gases and their contribution to climate change have been the subject of much research, of course, but aerosols remain murkier. Climate scientist James Hansen, a member of the Glory team, says researchers must use an uncertainty range for modeling aerosols that’s three to four times greater than what they use with greenhouse gases, simply because the contribution of aerosols is much less understood.

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 change. 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. [The Atlantic]

Those two monitoring systems not only will allow scientists to take better measurements of the aerosols in our atmosphere, but also they will track the small changes in sun’s radiation as it progresses through its cycles.

“Those fluctuations do not explain the global warming the planet has experienced in the last few decades,” said Judith Lean, a member of Glory’s science team and a researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. “However, it’s possible — probable even — that longer-term solar cycles exist that could have an impact on climate.” [Space Daily]

When it comes to changing the climate, Lean says, the small effects of the sun’s cycles are overwhelmed by the effects of pumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Yet the historical record suggests that when the sun stays quieter than normal over many cycles, it plays a role in climate trends. The famous example is the Maunder Minimum, when the sun was especially quiet throughout the late 1600s and Europe experienced terribly cold winters. The question the Glory mission will help answer, then, is how a prospective long minimum in the future might interact with the ways humans have changed the Earth.

The Gleissberg Minimum at the end of the 19th century may foreshadow the future of sun-induced cooling. The sun was quiet, but “not a lot of people have recognized that as a colder period of time for the United States,” [solar physicist Tom] Woods said. “We’re starting to see other effects from greenhouse gas burning. It was masked to some degree.” [Scientific American]

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Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space
  • Tork

    Mmm. ARS. Em, couldn’t help myself commenting on this one with a giggle .. did we mean APS :))

  • John Dodds

    THe GLORY detectors do NOT meansure gravity or potential energy due to gravity, both of which result in varying levels of energy on Earth. Just like energy goes from KInetic (temperature) to Potential in a pendulum, so does it go from kinetic to potetnial on Earth as the Earth gets closer & further away from the sun & planets. (see Gravity causes Climate Change” at This is what causes climate change. The idea that CO2 makes it warmer is absurd. Every night we have lesss energy coming in and it gets colder, IN SPITE of man adding more CO2 so more GHE does NOT cause more warming as Hansen claims. It is more energy that causes more warming.
    ALso the number of aerosols does NOT stop the potential energy from gravity, so it has little effect on climate change.

  • Bill

    Looking back at the Pleistocene, we have seen the ice ages separated by relatively short lived interglacial periods. As we research the evidence, we have noted an increase in CO2 during the interglacial periods. What we don’t know is if the increased CO2 level is a cause or an effect. I believe it is an effect.
    On a shorter time scale, we see climatic fluctuations both warm and cool such as the maunder minimum within the interglacial period we are now experiencing. This leads me to believe the Sun is responsible for these fluctuations.
    We all know the Sun converts hydrogen to helium converting the excess mass to energy. I suspect the helium builds up in striations or pockets and interferes with a smooth hydrogen fusion process. When the helium builds to such a point, the process becomes unstable and we experience the interglacial periods until the excess helium is redistributed in such a way that the Sun quiets down and we slip into another ice age.
    There is also the possibility of conditions existing temporarily allowing the helium to burn to heavier elements. We do not have the conditions on Earth for fusion to take place, however we can momentarily create the conditions in a hydrogen bomb. If we can do this, who is to say the Sun cannot temporarily burn helium producing violent solar flares and coronal mass ejections.
    We do not have to receive additional heat or light from the sun to warm us up. No matter what form the energy is in when it hits us, it can be converted to or manifested as heat.
    The fact that we are polluting our environment in the air, on land, in the oceans, and in space to a very dangerous level is coincidental to the Sun’s activity and an exacerbating element. We do need to clean up our act and our environment or choke on our own refuse, but common sense and a wealth of information readily available on the Internet points to the Sun as the direct cause of global warming.
    There have been other ice ages detected within Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, some of which have been rather extreme (Snowball Earth) and warms spells, but the Sun has it’s own evolution and we have to live with it.


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