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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 July, 2004, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Nasa launches its Aura satellite
Artist's impression of Aura in space, Nasa
Aura completes the land, water and air series
The US space agency has successfully launched its Aura satellite which is designed to check the health of the Earth's atmosphere.

The satellite blasted away from Earth on a Boeing Delta 2 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 1002GMT.

A problem with the rocket's battery system stopped the countdown three minutes before lift-off on Wednesday.

Aura will peer through the stratosphere and troposphere, to study in detail the thin layer of gas in which we live.

We are now bracing ourselves for the arrival of many gigabytes of data
Hugh Pumphrey, University of Edinburgh
Launch attempts on Sunday and Tuesday were also scrubbed because of technical issues, first with the rocket and then with its payload.

'Very useful tool'

Among its many tasks, Aura will test whether international atmospheric treaties, such as the Montreal Protocol to repair the ozone layer, are working.

Final assembly of Aura satellite, Nasa
The spacecraft promises significant returns for climate studies
Nasa describes the spacecraft as one of the most sophisticated environmental monitoring satellites ever built.

It is the third in the agency's series of satellites aimed at providing definitive data on the global environment.

The first two, Terra and Aqua, are studying the ground and the oceans. Aura will concentrate on the atmosphere, looking at gases, pollutants, and chemical reactions.

The three-tonne spacecraft will help scientists understand how atmospheric composition affects and responds to Earth's changing climate.

"Aura's going to be very helpful in tracking whether the ozone layer is recovering, in establishing the relationship between particulates and atmospheric gases and climate change; and Aura will hopefully also be a very useful tool in developing better predictions of air quality," Rick Pickering, Aura Project Manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center, told BBC News Online.

Climate complexity

Last year, scientists produced the first concrete evidence that the ozone layer is in the process of recovering (even if the hole is presently getting bigger) after decades of damage caused by substances like CFCs.

But a return to full health will take about 50 years by current estimates - and global warming could change that timescale.

On climate change itself, one outstanding issue is the role of tiny particles in the atmosphere.

Ozone hole data from 2003, Nasa
The ozone "hole" is still growing - but not as fast as it once was
These aerosols, typically containing sulphur or carbon, come from natural sources, such as volcanoes, and from human sources, such as the soot from fossil fuel burning.

Aerosols are an important but uncertain agent of climate change. By absorbing or scattering radiation, they can either warm or cool the troposphere. They can also modify clouds and affect precipitation.

If Aura can help scientists understand precisely what these particles are doing, how they behave and what they mean for the future of the global climate, that would be a significant return on the satellite's billion-dollar cost.

Aura has four instruments, the High Resolution Dynamics Limb Sounder (HIRDLS); the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS); the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI); and the Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer (TES).

The HIRDLS and MLS were built with a substantial UK contribution.

MLS scientist Hugh Pumphrey, from the University of Edinburgh, was pleased to see Aura finally fly.

"We watched the launch over the internet earlier today and, having broken out the champagne (which has been in and out of the fridge several times over the last few days) we are now bracing ourselves for the arrival of many gigabytes of data."

Ozone benefits from treaty
01 Aug 03  |  Science/Nature
Ice mission delights scientists
14 Dec 03  |  Science/Nature
Soot 'makes global warming worse'
23 Dec 03  |  Science/Nature

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