The launch will take place on Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The tool was designed and manufactured here years ago and then transported to the United States. This is a public-private partnership between the space organization SRON, the Dutch subsidiary of Airbus and the research organization TNO. NASA is also involved.
Particles, called particulate matter or aerosols, remain a small but important unknown factor in climate science. It has a cooling effect because it reflects sunlight back into the space. They also affect cloud formation, causing further cooling. But the magnitude of these effects remains largely unknown.
To complicate matters, aerosols can also absorb sunlight themselves, making climate change worse. Climate scientists would like to know more about this, so they can determine exactly how much and how long global warming will continue.
These particles can have a natural origin, in the form of sea salt or desert dust. But it is also released by human activities, such as in industry or traffic. This concerns, for example, soot and ash.
“It will be important to be able to distinguish between different sources of aerosols,” says Otto Hasekamp, a research leader at SPEXone who works at the SRON space organization. “Are they particles from sea salt, or smoke from forest fires, industry, or desert dust, for example.”
The new tool can be used to measure the number of species present in space. “It's definitely important to know whether something comes from sea salt or from pollution from industry,” Hasekamp explains. “Because you can do something about one thing, but not the other.”
Construction of the tool began in 2017. He says that thinking about it began even before 2010. The development of the technology also continued to advance step by step. “Particles are difficult to measure, because they come in all shapes and sizes. This requires a complex instrument.”
In 2011, NASA attempted to launch such an instrument into space itself. But that launch failed, Hasekamp says. As a result, he is looking forward to next Tuesday with great anticipation, even though launches usually go well these days.
The collaboration between different companies and research institutions in creating the measurement tool was remarkable, says Winky van der Meulen from Airbus in Leiden. “Experts from SRON and Airbus worked as a team to develop SPEXone. The teamwork with NASA was also exceptional. They really sat next to us, which made it easier to find solutions to problems faster.”
It has been known for years that aerosols affect climate. In recent decades, the air has become cleaner, especially in Europe, due to measures taken to combat air pollution. This is good for public health, but has the negative side effect of increasing global warming.
As a result, there are fewer dust particles floating in the air that cool the ground. This effect is in addition to the temperature rise caused by greenhouse gas emissions. According to the latest report from the UN Climate Panel (IPCC), without aerosols the Earth would have warmed even more, mainly due to carbon dioxide and methane emissions, than is currently the case.
Aerosols are one of the major uncertainties that remain about future global warming. But they certainly have an impact. It could also be volcanic ash. For example, the 1991 eruption of Pinatubo dropped global temperatures by about half a degree. It was a temporary effect, and then it disappeared after a few years.
SPEX-one is not the only tool in PACE. Another device will determine the color of ocean water. This color says something about phytoplankton: tiny organisms that float in water and get their energy from sunlight. Phytoplankton are an important source of oxygen in the atmosphere, which is why scientists also want to know how they work.
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