The A-Train series of satellites collecting aerosol information; Image via NASA
Last month, we reported on the Glory Satellite from NASA. Intended to measure airborne grit from volcanoes, forest fires, smokestacks and tailpipes, the satellite, named Glory, is part of a $424 million mission to discover more about the health of our atmosphere. NASA will launch Glory at Vandenberg Air Force Base early tomorrow morning. The scientists behind the mission state that we need to get much more familiar with these aerosols in order to know what and who they affect, and how.
According to the article in Physorg, aerosols have been studied with the help of satellites for the last 50 years, but this new satellite will hopefully take the most accurate measurements thus far. As TreeHugger Mike reported last month, "After a 30-day period of tests and calibrations, it should be able to gather data for at least three years."
Via NASA: These scanning electron microscope images (not at the same scale) show the wide variety of aerosol shapes. From left to right: volcanic ash, pollen, sea salt, and soot. [Micrographs courtesy USGS, UMBC (Chere Petty), and Arizona State University (Peter Buseck).]
Why Measuring Aerosols Matters
PhysOrg reports that while only about 10% of aerosols come from human activity and the rest is natural, they do have a big effect on the warming and cooling of the planet.
"Unlike greenhouse gases that linger in the atmosphere for years, aerosols are short-lived - staying aloft for weeks - so it's much harder to measure them than carbon dioxide... Aerosols can influence both warming and cooling of the planet depending on their color and chemical makeup. They can result in cooling by scattering sunlight back into space; they also can absorb solar energy, warming the atmosphere."
Additionally, aerosols can help seed clouds and modify cloud properties, according to NASA. NASA's Earth Observatory writes that there are a huge variety of aerosols and different specialists describe them based on shape, size and chemical composition. Climatologists generally focus on this last description.
Human activity responsible for creating aerosols includes fossil fuel combustion, biomass burning, automobiles, incinerators, power plants, and more. Also, deforestation, overgrazing, excessive irrigation and other harmful practices that alter the land make it even easier for aerosols to enter the atmosphere.
But what exactly is their effect on atmospheric systems? This is what the newest satellite in the fleet of aerosol-measuring satellites will help with.
Glory's Aerosol Polarimetery Sensor (APS), under a protective bag here, is the triangular-shaped part of the spacecraft highest from the ground in this photograph. Credit: NASA/KSC
Glory Satellite Will Help Reveal Impact of Aerosols
NASA states, "Glory should offer even deeper insights into how specific types of aerosols influence the atmosphere both directly and through their impacts on clouds and precipitation," said Tristan L'Ecuyer, a research scientist at Colorado State University. "There is still considerable ambiguity about the dominant types of aerosol in satellite observations and the amount of observed aerosol that can be attributed to human activities."
Glory will hopefully help scientists figure out which aerosols are human-generated, and what impact those human-generated particles have on atmospheric systems.
"We need to do a much better job of characterizing aerosols in order to improve predictions of, for example, how much temperature will rise over the next 50 years," said research scientist Jonathan Jiang, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Watch a video of how aerosols affect the climate to learn more.
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