New NASA satellite to track airborne carbon dioxide

27 Jun 2014

Engineers attach NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 to the payload attach system in a clean room in the Astrotech Payload Processing Facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California earlier this month. Image via NASA/U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing

US space agency NASA’s new Earth-orbiting satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), is expected to provide scientists with answers to questions about carbon dioxide so they may evaluate options to manage climate change.

The spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on 1 July, will allow scientists to record detailed daily measurements of carbon dioxide – around 100,000 measurements of the gas around the world every day.

Although scientists know the concentration of carbon dioxide, they want to know more about the processes that govern the gas’ atmospheric concentration, precisely where all of the carbon dioxide comes from, and where it is being stored when it leaves the air.

That information is crucial for understanding the impact of human activities on the climate and for evaluating options for reducing the impact of or adapting to climate change.

OCO-2 will act like a plane observing the smoke from forest fires down below, with the task of assessing where the fires are and how big they are,” said Gregg Marland, a professor in the Geology Department of Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina.

“If you visualise a column of air that stretches from Earth’s surface to the top of the atmosphere, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 will identify how much of that vertical column is carbon dioxide, with an understanding that most is emitted at the surface.

“Compare that aerial capability with sending a lot of people into the forest looking for fires. The observatory will use its vantage point from space to capture a picture of where the sources and sinks of carbon dioxide are, rather than our cobbling data together from multiple sources with less frequency, reliability and detail.”

Tina Costanza was a journalist and sub-editor at Silicon Republic