FAQ: Inside NASA's Climate-Watching Glory Mission

Glory will fly in a low-Earth orbit of 438 miles (705 km) altitude, which is about the distance between Boston and Washington.
Glory will fly in a low-Earth orbit of 438 miles (705 km) altitude, which is about the distance between Boston and Washington. (Image credit: NASA)

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect changes in the launch plan for the Glory satellite due to technical problems. Read the latest.

NASA’s latest Earth-observing satellite is set to launch March 4, after delays due to a technical glitch, on a mission to improve scientists’ understanding of the Earth’s climate.

The satellite, called Glory, will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, though a technical glitch with ground equipment related to its Taurus XL rocket has forced NASA to delay the launch try, space agency officials said. The satellite was initially slated to launch on Feb. 23.

The Glory satellite will monitor how the sun and tiny particles in the Earth's atmosphere, called aerosols, affect the planet's climate. Scientists hope the new satellite will address key uncertainties in climate research by enriching scientists' understanding of manmade and natural aerosol contributions to global climate change.

The satellite's onboard instruments will also collect data to enhance scientific models, and could help paint a clearer picture of the causes and consequences of climate change. Here's a NASA-provided look at how the Glory satellite mission will work:

What does Glory measure?

Glory has two distinct science instruments. One is focused on the sun and the other on Earth's atmosphere. Glory's Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) measures variations in the sun's Total Solar Irradiance (TSI), the amount of solar energy that strikes the top of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, Glory's Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS) observes small droplets and particles in the atmosphere that can affect the climate called aerosols. [Earth's Atmosphere from Top to Bottom]

Why Glory?

An accurate description of Earth's energy budget — the amount of energy entering and exiting the Earth's climate system — is important for anticipating future changes to the climate. Shifts in the global climate and associated weather patterns impact human life by altering landscapes and changing the availability of natural resources. NASA is working to improve the understanding of exactly how and why this energy budget changes, and the Glory mission will play a key role.

Does the amount of radiation emitted by the sun change over time?

Yes, during periods of high solar activity, increases in the number of sunspots (cool dark blotches on the sun's surface) and faculae (hot bright spots adjacent to sunspots) cause the amount of solar energy that strikes the top of the atmosphere to increase slightly. Overall, this solar energy varies by approximately 0.1 percent between the most and least active parts of 11-year solar cycles.

Are there solar cycles longer than the 11-year cycle that could affect Earth's climate?

Yes, it's possible — probable, in fact — that the sun experiences sizable shifts in irradiance over much longer time scales that could impact climate. For example, a 70-year period, from 1645 to 1715, called the Maunder Minimum, which featured exceptionally low numbers of sunspots, is thought to be connected to a period of especially low solar energy striking the top of the atmosphere, which helped drive Europe's "Little Ice Age."

Is the sun the cause of the global warming observed during the last century?

No. Scientists who study the links between solar activity and climate believe that the small variations in the sun's irradiance cannot explain the intensity and speed of warming trends seen on Earth during the last century. [Top 10 Surprising Results of Global Warming]

The 0.1 percent shift in solar irradiance simply isn't enough to have a strong influence, and there's no convincing evidence that suggests the solar energy striking the top of the atmosphere has trended upward enough over the last century to affect climate significantly.

What are aerosols?

Aerosols are tiny liquid and solid particles suspended in the atmosphere. These particles play a critical role in the climate system and are present nearly everywhere from the upper reaches of the atmosphere to the surface air that humans breathe. They range in size from a few nanometers, less than the size of the smallest viruses, to several tens of micrometers, the diameter of human hair.

Where do natural aerosols come from?

Volcanoes can inject huge columns of gases high into the atmosphere that can become sulfate particles. Sandstorms whip small pieces of mineral dust into the air. Forest fires send partially burned black carbon and other smoke particles aloft.

The spray from surface waves injects sea salt into marine air. Even certain plants produce gases that react with other substances in the atmosphere to produce aerosols.

Where do human-produced aerosols come from?

Fossil fuel, especially coal, combustion produces large amounts of sulfate aerosols.

Biomass burning, a common method of clearing land, yields smoke that's comprised mainly of organic matter and soot. Motor vehicles produce nitrate aerosols. Diesel engines are prolific producers of black carbon. Deforestation, overgrazing, and cultivation change the soil, often leading to higher rates of dust aerosols entering the atmosphere.

How do aerosols affect the climate?

Aerosols can affect climate directly by scattering and absorbing incoming sunlight — or radiation reflected by the surface of Earth — as it passes through the atmosphere. The bulk of aerosols, particularly sulfates, scatter incoming sunlight, some of it back toward space, thus cooling Earth's surface immediately below. Other aerosols, especially black carbon, can absorb some of the incoming radiation and warm the atmosphere.

Aerosols can also have indirect effects on the climate by changing how clouds behave. In fact, certain aerosols provide tiny "seeds" that allow water vapor in the atmosphere to coalesce more easily than it would otherwise. In a sense, clouds owe their very existence to aerosols. However, accurate quantitative knowledge of aerosol effects on climate, and especially the role of human-made aerosols, remains elusive.

What makes Glory's Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS) instrument unique?

The Glory APS is NASA's first instrument capable of studying the polarization of light from aerosols with enough precision to identify aerosol types globally from space. Analyzing the polarization — a measure of the physical orientation of light waves as they move through space — of light scattered by aerosols helps scientists distinguish between different types of aerosol particles.

What makes Glory's Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) instrument unique?

The TIM is an improvement of a similar instrument launched in 2003 as part of NASA's Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) mission. It will help maintain a largely continuous record of solar irradiance that stretches back to the 1970s. The Glory TIM should be at least three times more accurate than the previous version. The Glory TIM has been calibrated at a new ground-based facility called the TSI Radiometer Facility (TRF).

How big is the Glory spacecraft?

The Glory spacecraft is average in comparison to other NASA Earth-observing satellites. It isn't the largest or the heaviest, nor does it carry the most scientific instruments. At 6.2 feet (1.9 meters) by 4.6 feet (1.4 meters), Glory isn't much taller than most people or wider than an oil barrel. Glory weighed 1,164 pounds (528 kilograms) at launch, about half the weight of a Volkswagen Beetle.

How will Glory achieve orbit?

A four-stage, solid-fuel rocket — a Taurus XL — is scheduled to launch Glory into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The spacecraft will fly among a series of Earth-observing satellites, dubbed the A-Train, that track the same line over Earth.

The A-Train is comprised of a group of U.S. and international satellite missions that operate in the same orbit for the purposes of making coordinated measurements.

This story was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to SPACE.com, and a NASA description of the Glory satellite mission.

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U.S. Space Agency

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the U.S. government agency in charge of the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. Founded in 1958, NASA is a civilian space agency aimed at exploring the universe with space telescopes,  satellites, robotic spacecraft, astronauts and more. The space agency has 10 major centers based across the U.S. and launches robotic and crewed missions from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral Florida. Its astronaut corps is based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. To follow NASA's latest mission, follow the space agency on Twitter or any other social channel, visit: nasa.gov