NASA's set to light the match to the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, scanning Earth's surface for elusive carbon dioxide "sinks" in its atmosphere. The OCO is NASA's first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the most significant human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change.
NASA plans to launch Feb.
24 its first spacecraft solely dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide
emissions, sending the Orbiting Carbon Observatory into low orbit to measure
atmospheric carbon dioxide. The mission is to map the globe from space every 16
days for at least two years in search of human and natural carbon dioxide
sources as well as the mysterious carbon dioxide "sinks," the places
where carbon dioxide is pulled out of the atmosphere and stored.
Exactly where those sinks are, however, has proved to be elusive for
scientists, who have determined only about 40 percent of carbon dioxide
emissions have remained in Earth's atmosphere. Of the remaining 60 percent,
scientists know about 30 percent can be accounted for in Earth's oceans. The
rest have been absorbed in the so-called sinks somewhere on land.
"It's critical that we understand the processes controlling carbon dioxide
in our atmosphere today so we can predict how fast it will build up in the
future and how quickly we'll have to adapt to climate change caused by carbon
dioxide buildup," David Crisp, principal investigator for the Orbiting
Carbon Observatory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.,
said in a statement.
Loaded with three high-resolution spectrometers, the OCO will give scientists
about 8 million measurements every two weeks. Each spectrometer focuses on a
different, narrow color range, detecting light with the specific colors
absorbed by carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen. The less carbon dioxide
present in the atmosphere, the more light the spectrometers detect.
NASA says the data from the 300-pound, $273.4 million OCO is critical to
measuring global carbon dioxide distribution, allowing scientists to reduce
uncertainties in predicting future carbon dioxide increases and make more
accurate climate change predictions.
"The Orbiting Carbon
Observatory's carbon dioxide measurements will be pivotal in advancing our
knowledge of virtually all Earth system land, atmosphere and ocean
processes," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science
Division in Washington. "They will play
crucial roles in refining our knowledge of climate forcings and Earth's
NASA notes, for instance,
that more carbon appears to be taken up by coastal and terrestrial ecosystems
than in many other parts of the world. The OCO will help determine the specific
roles that Alaska, Canada, the contiguous United States and Mexico are playing in this North
The OCO will circle Earth
every 99 minutes with-NASA hopes-the unprecedented precision, resolution and
coverage necessary to completing the first overall picture of the
regional-scale geographic distribution and seasonal variations of both human
and natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions and their sinks.
"The new mission
will provide information to help develop and implement domestic policies and
international collaborations to control the movement of carbon in the environment,"
said Edwin Sheffner, deputy chief of Earth Science at NASA's Ames Research
Center, in Moffett Field, Calif. "By identifying and monitoring carbon
sources and sinks within a given region, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory will
enable comparisons of net carbon dioxide emission sources among regions and
counties, and will improve annual reporting of carbon budgets by industrial
countries in northern latitudes, and by tropical states with large
The OCO will depart from
Space Launch Complex 576-E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on a Taurus XL 3110 launch
vehicle, a rocket with an 86 percent success rate built by Orbital Sciences and
developed under the sponsorship of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research
Once in orbit and the
high-resolution spectrometers are properly calibrated, the OCO will take the
lead position in a constellation of satellites known as the A-Train, crossing
the equator shortly after noon each day in coordinated flight
formation. The coordination and timing will allow researchers to correlate the
OCO's data with data from the other NASA spacecraft, including nearly
simultaneous carbon dioxide measurements from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder
instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite.
"Major advances in
data from satellites, such as OCO, will help us figure out how these different
processes are linked and interlinked. We'll be able to sort out the
puzzle," said Carlton Hall, manager of the Ecological Program at the Kennedy Space Center. "Earth is like a heat engine.
Greenhouse gases trap heat, and that energy has to go somewhere. So even though
the actual daily temperatures we experience seem normal, we may see stranger
hurricane patterns, colder winters or droughts in places where they've never