NASA To Launch New Satellite Even As Republicans Try To Ground Climate Research

The picture of the Earth’s climate could become even clearer after tomorrow. NASA is getting a satellite off the ground even as House Republicans try to defund climate monitoring.

Understanding the Sun’s Role

The satellite, called Glory, has two primary purposes. One is to monitor solar radiation. Scientists have been aware of solar cycles for some time. These cycles run on an 11-year loop on average and are one of many natural processes that influence the Earth’s climate. Peaks in the cycles cause more sunspots and tend to increase the energy entering the Earth’s system, which accounts for some warming.

Not surprisingly, solar radiation happens to be a favorite way for skeptics to try and explain climate change. "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.

The graph on the right shows solar radiation against the global temperature record and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Even as solar radiation has died down recently, temperatures have gone up.

Scientists have also recently begun to consider longer-term fluctuations in the sun’s output. For example, Galileo and other’s observations indicate that from 1645 to 1715, the sun was relatively quiet. Glory will provide more data on the likelihood of that occurring in addition to 11-year cycles.

Focus on Aerosols

Glory will also collect data on aerosols. Long a source of uncertainty for climate change and the climate system, aerosols are tiny particles that come from both natural and artificial sources. These sources range from sea salts to dust to forest fires to tail pipes. Depending on their size and nature they can either scatter or absorb light. They also affect cloud formation.

Understanding those properties is very important to researchers. This is especially true for clouds, which have different effects on the Earth’s climate depending on their altitude: some cause warming while other cause cooling. This new data will foster in a better understanding of how we’re affecting the climate.

The new information on aerosols will also help improve long-term climate prediction. Currently, a third of models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) don’t even model the effects of aerosols on clouds. The new data should help clear up some of that uncertainty and provide a better picture of what the future will look like.

The satellite will gather this information by using a unique sensor that analyzes different wavelengths of light. Since each aerosol reflects light in a different way, scientists will be able to work backwards to determine the source of the aerosol. Space Daily equates this with the work done by forensic detectives working backwards from a drop of blood to determine the culprit of a crime.

Glory: Soon to be a Rare Sight?

All of this is happening against a backdrop of deep budget cuts to climate science programs by Republicans in the House. The House passed amendments prohibiting the funding of NOAA’s proposed Climate Service, the IPCC, and pretty much anything related to the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans have also proposed reshaping NASA by shifting funding from earth sciences to space exploration.

It’s sad that even monitoring the climate is now a political issue. Satellites monitor sea surface temperatures, vegetation cover, and countless other useful phenomenon. This data in turn leads to more accurate weather predictions, bettering planning for food aid in developing countries, and ultimately helps people better prepare for disasters.

Sending humans to the moon is a worthy goal, but not at the sake of ignoring the planet we live on. House Republicans are either deeply cynical or willfully ignorant about the direct benefits climate monitoring efforts like the Glory satellite provide. Either way, it’s inexcusable and troubling on many levels.

So catch Glory’s send off tomorrow if you can. According to a press release from NASA, Glory is scheduled to launch tomorrow at 5:09 a.m. PST from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, CA.

If you can’t catch a last minute flight to the Los Angeles area, don’t worry. You can watch it live on NASA TV. Countdown begins at 12:30 PST so you have almost five hours to get ready for the main event. If House Republicans have their way, you won’t get a chance to see something like this again for a while.

Photo credit: NASA Goddard and IPCC