Loss of Glory: What it Means for Climate and Future of NASA
On Friday, the Glory satellite failed to reach escape velocity and crashed to Earth. In a recent reply to a news reporter, Dr. Bruce Wielicki of NASA eloquently described NASA’s role in studying climate and why the loss of this satellite was a huge setback for climate science. Dr. Wielicki has graciously allowed me to repost his response here.
“Your questions are good ones and I’ll try to put them in context. First: who am I? I have been a co-investigator or lead investigator on NASA Earth Science missions since 1980: ERBE, CERES, CALIPSO, CloudSat, CLARREO. So I am very familiar with space missions in general and climate missions (all of the above) in particular. If you need more details they are in the attached resume.
The loss of the Glory satellite is a tragedy for climate science. The Glory satellite included two critical instruments: one to monitor the total energy reaching the Earth from the Sun, and a second to unravel some of the key remaining mysteries about tiny particles called aerosols: especially about the aerosols that humans emit when we burn fossil fuels in cars, power plants, or our homes. Aerosols remain one of the key uncertainties in how fast our fossil fuel burning is pushing the climate system to warmer levels. So the Glory mission was a key part of understanding how both natural (Sun) and human (aerosols) forcings are acting to change our current and future climate.
If this loss is so serious, why was there no back up strategy? Why was this allowed to be a single point of failure? The answer is that space missions are expensive by nature, risky by nature, and our nation has decided not to spend the kind of resources it would take for a more robust set of climate research observations. Such an observation system might easily cost 4 to 5 times the current NASA Earth Science budget. Would it be worth it to make more intelligent future decisions about climate change? Without a doubt. But is there a national will to do it? Evidently not. One way to look at this is that we have a football team with only one player at most positions, and none at a few positions. When one of the players we do have gets hurt: there are no replacements. You play without him and wait until he heals. The time to heal a lost space mission is typically 3 to 7 years depending on budgets and how many spare parts remain from the last instrument builds.
What is NASA’s role in climate science? NASA Earth Science missions are a critical part of climate science. Space is the only way to get truly global observations of the Earth and its climate system: from equator to pole, from the U.S. to China. Those observations include everything from the atmosphere to the oceans to the ice sheets to polar sea ice to land cover including vegetation and snow. They include the energy we receive from the sun as well as the solar energy we reflect back to space and the thermal energy we emit to space to shed the solar heat that we absorb. Climate is an interlinked global system including all of these key parts. Looking at just one or even a few of them typically leads to large uncertainties and low scientific confidence. NASA has led the world in global climate science since the advent of the Earth Observing System that started in 1990: the first attempt at a global Earth observing system. Ironically it was the deficit federal budgets of the mid 1990s that reduced the effort to about 1/3 of its original plan. What we have now are pieces of that system that have lived well beyond their design life. For example, the Aqua spacecraft was launched in 2002, designed for a 5yr mission life, and was originally supposed to have 3 copies launched on 5 year intervals to achieve a continuous climate record over at least 15 years. Only 1 spacecraft was ever built and launched, and has now been operating successfully for about 9 years on orbit. A follow on mission called NPP is finally planned for launch the end of this year. But there is no climate observing system in the same sense that there is a weather observing system. NASA is doing the best it can with the limited resources it has. There are no backups.
Should NASA be doing climate science? The National Aeronautics and Space Act established the agency in 1958. In the Space Act, the first objective of the agency was listed as “the expansion of human knowledge of the earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.” Earth science has been a key part of NASA’s mission throughout its history. The need for that mission today is more critical than it was in 1958. When the Space Act was written, we had little idea of potential climate change issues. The Keeling record of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was just starting in Hawaii. The Keelilng record was not the first carbon dioxide observation: but it was the first with the high accuracy over a long time period needed for climate change research. Many people confuse weather with climate. Why can’t weather satellites be used for climate data? In general they lack the high accuracy needed for climate change. Weather accuracy is 1 or 2 degrees in temperature, while climate accuracy is a tenth of a degree: a factor of ten more difficult. In the end, climate observations have requirements that are typically ten times more accurate than weather, and require 10 times as many variables to be observed. In the U.S. we have a dozen agencies that contribute to climate science and are coordinated using the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). NASA resources are the largest contributor to the USGCRP of all the agencies, but none of the agencies has climate as its highest priority. This results in a “curse of the commons” situation where none of the agencies can really lead the development of a climate observing system. Each does the best it can within its limited scope and resources.
What do the successive failures of the OCO and Glory missions mean for NASA climate science? They will have a serious impact and will delay advances in understanding carbon dioxide sources and sinks (OCO), natural and man-made aerosols (Glory), and solar climate forcing (Glory). They will also force NASA to evaluate the best balance between use of small less reliable but less expensive rockets, versus larger more reliable but more expensive rockets. Unfortunately there are no easy answers. It is likely that NASA will continue to find the best option is a range of small to large missions, with a range of small to large costs, and low to high reliability. The resources are not there to design and implement a global climate observing system with a 90% chance of success. Maybe someday that will change.
Sorry this is so long, but these are not easy questions. It is a sobering time to consider them.”