NASA's Glory Satellite Will Study Climate Change Causes

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Identifying the source of a particle floating in the atmosphere makes finding a needle in a haystack sound easy. But the robotic probe attached to NASA’s new satellite, named Glory, will do just that from over 400 miles above the Earth’s surface.

The satellite will carry a particle identifying instrument, called the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS), along with another probe called the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM). The two instruments will work together to help scientists understand the dynamics of global warming and identify its causes.

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In late February, Glory will join a group of satellites, known as the Afternoon Train, already orbiting the Earth. Everyday, the Afternoon Train, or A-Train, flies over the equator at roughly 1:30 p.m. local time. The Afternoon Train allows scientists to observe multiple atmospheric conditions in essentially the same place and time every day.

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The four satellites already in orbit, Aqua, CloudSat, CALIPSO, and Aura, are already monitoring clouds and water vapor, weather patterns, greenhouse gas concentrations, and other influences on the Earth’s climate. The new probes on Glory will add two new abilities to the Afternoon Train’s repertoire, measuring the sun’s energy and analyzing the composition of aerosols.

When scientists talk about aerosols, they mean tiny particulates floating in the air, not including clouds. When you spray a can of paint, what comes out is an aerosol. Some aerosols are natural, such as dust and volcanic ash, others are put there by human activities, like carbon black (soot) from burning coal.

The Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor will observe light waves bouncing off particles in Earth’s atmosphere. Different types of particles reflect light differently. By knowing what types of particles are floating around and in what quantities, the scientists hope to nail down their sources.

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Glory’s other passenger, the Total Irradiance Monitor will help researchers understand the seemingly simple equation of climate change:

(Sun’s energy striking the Earth) (Sun’s energy bouncing off or otherwise released into space) = (Amount of warming or cooling of the Earth.)

If more energy is coming in than is being released back out, the Earth is getting hotter. But trying to quantify energy-in versus energy-out requires measurements of day-to-day changes in solar energy reaching Earth. The Total Irradiance Monitor will monitor the entire spectrum of energy coming from the sun toward Earth’s equator.

By knowing how the whole spectrum of electromagnetic energy, from X-ray to infrared, fluctuates scientists will better understand how the sun itself effects the Earth’s temperature. That way, changes in the sun’s energy can be sorted out from natural and human-caused influences on the climate.

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