NASA Launches Carbon Mission to Watch Earth Breathe

Jul 4, 2014



NASA successfully launched its first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. EDT) Wednesday.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) raced skyward from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. Approximately 56 minutes after the launch, the observatory separated from the rocket’s second stage into an initial 429-mile (690-kilometer) orbit. The spacecraft then performed a series of activation procedures, established communications with ground controllers and unfurled its twin sets of solar arrays. Initial telemetry shows the spacecraft is in excellent condition.

OCO-2 soon will begin a minimum two-year mission to locate Earth’s sources of and storage places for atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas responsible for warming our world, and a critical component of the planet’s carbon cycle.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “With OCO-2 and our existing fleet of satellites, NASA is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society.”

OCO-2 will take NASA’s studies of carbon dioxide and the global carbon cycle to new heights. The mission will produce the most detailed picture to date of natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their “sinks” — places on Earth’s surface where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. The observatory will study how these sources and sinks are distributed around the globe and how they change over time.

“This challenging mission is both timely and important,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “OCO-2 will produce exquisitely precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations near Earth’s surface, laying the foundation for informed policy decisions on how to adapt to and reduce future climate change.”

Carbon dioxide sinks are at the heart of a longstanding scientific puzzle that has made it difficult for scientists to accurately predict how carbon dioxide levels will change in the future and how those changing concentrations will affect Earth’s climate.

“Scientists currently don’t know exactly where and how Earth’s oceans and plants have absorbed more than half the carbon dioxide that human activities have emitted into our atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era,” said David Crisp, OCO-2 science team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Because of this, we cannot predict precisely how these processes will operate in the future as climate changes. For society to better manage carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure the natural source and sink processes.”

One comment on “NASA Launches Carbon Mission to Watch Earth Breathe”

  • @OP – The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2)

    This is a replacement satellite for one which was lost in an explosion.

    It is also a follow on from earlier CO2 mapping work.

    The observatory carries a single instrument – a spectrometer that breaks the sunlight reflected off the Earth’s surface into its constituent colours, and then analyses the spectrum to determine how much carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen is present.

    Combining the data on these two gases can be used to work out atmospheric concentrations.

    Current CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere stand at about 400 parts per million.

    However, to locate the sources and sinks, scientists will need to combine this information with models that estimate how CO2 is being moved and mixed through the air.

    The mission follows on the heels of the Japanese Gosat (Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite) venture, which has been doing a similar job since 2009, although at a lower resolution than OCO-2 will manage.

    The Nasa scientists say they have learnt a huge amount from the Gosat experience, and expect the US satellite’s science return to be hugely boosted as a result.

    Dr David Crisp, the science team leader on OCO-2, commented: “Our science team has been working very closely with the Japanese, and this has provided a critical series of opportunities to develop and then validate the algorithms we will use to analyse the data.

    “We are now so much further ahead of where we would have been had we launched successfully in 2009. In fact, we now think that within a few months of [Wednesday’s] launch, we’ll be producing a product that will be far better than anything we could have produced in the nominal mission of [the original satellite].”

    Europe has carbon missions of its own coming at the end of the decade.

    The French space agency (Cnes) is developing a concept called MicroCarb, which, like Gosat and OCO-2 before it, will measure carbon dioxide concentrations.

    Cnes is also working on a concept with the German space agency (DLR) called Merlin. This satellite would study the distribution of methane in the atmosphere.

    And the European Space Agency (Esa) has approved a project called Biomass. It will employ an orbiting radar system to “weigh” the amount carbon stored in the world’s forests.

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