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NASA launch failure is a blow to climate science

March 7, 2011 |  1:13 pm

NASA launch 
The crash of a NASA rocket  bearing a sophisticated observation satellite has dealt a major setback to scientific efforts aimed at understanding how humans are affecting Earth’s climate.

A nine-story Taurus XL rocket carrying the agency’s Glory satellite was launched early Friday from Vandenburg Air Force base. But it crashed into the Pacific Ocean without reaching orbit, after the satellite’s protective casing failed to open. The satellite carried equipment to help scientists understand how the sun and particles of matter in the atmosphere called aerosols affect Earth’s climate.

Scientists said the new instruments would have been able to distinguish more accurately than ever the difference between such natural particles as desert dust, and particles from human activities such as burning coal and using nitrate fertilizers.

"The loss of the Glory satellite is a serious setback to our capacity to continue observations critical to understanding and predicting the earth's climate," said Greg Holland, director of the Earth System Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, based in Boulder, Co.

The failure of the $424-million mission comes at a time of heightened controversy over the accuracy of climate predictions, with the oil and coal industries attacking the integrity of scientific research and seeking to halt government efforts to limit  the burning of fossil fuel.

An assessment of  thousands of climate-related research papers by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of more than 2500 scientists brought together by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations, concluded in 2007 that the warming of earth’s climate is “unequivocal.” The warming, they asserted with “more than 90% certainty,” is mostly due to the effect of greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.

In the U.S., 45% of electrical power is generated by burning coal, the fuel with the highest toxic air pollution and the highest level of planet-heating carbon dioxide emissions. Republicans in Congress, along with coal-state Democrats, are seeking to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

NASA’s Earth observation program has suffered budget cuts in recent years as the agency focused on exploration projects such as the space shuttle and the proposed Mars mission. Four years ago, the National Academy of Sciences  warned that budget cutting had put the nation’s ability to monitor severe weather, climate change and fresh-water shortages “at great risk.” (Correction: an earlier version of this post mistakenly attributed the study to the National Science Foundation)


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--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: The Taurus XL rocket that blasted off carrying NASA's Glory satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday failed to reach orbit. NASA says in a statement that a protective shell atop the rocket did not separate from the satellite as it should have about three minutes after the launch. Credit: Bryan Walton / Santa Maria Times)