Watching Gaia from above


By Duncan Graham-Rowe TERRA, NASA’s $1.3 billion Earth observation satellite, finally lifted off on 18 December just 10 seconds before the close of its 25-minute launch window. Packed with sensors for investigating how the oceans, continents and atmosphere interact, Terra is the first of 10 satellites designed to monitor the effects of human activity on the global environment over the next 15 years. Terra, formerly known as EOS AM-1, was delayed for months after concerns about the upper stage engine caused its Atlas IIA launcher to be grounded. Last week, an errant safety warning and a hang-glider encroaching on the launch site at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California nearly conspired to postpone the launch once more. The bus-sized satellite will circle the Earth 16 times a day for the next six years, in a polar orbit. This will allow its sensors to scan the entire planet every one to two days. Its five main instruments include a device called Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere, which will be the first instrument to analyse air pollution in the lower atmosphere from space. Another, called Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System,
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