CO2 Observatory in Orbit
July 3, 2014
NASA has launched its first spacecraft devoted to monitoring atmospheric carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas thought to be responsible for much of Earth’s recent warming trend.
The space agency’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite (OCO-2) blasted off today (July 2) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 5:56 a.m. EDT (2:56 a.m. local time), carried aloft by a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket. The liftoff was originally scheduled for Tuesday (July 1), but a problem with the launch pad’s water system caused a one-day delay.
The satellite will measure carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere 24 times every second, revealing in great detail where the gas is being produced and where it is being pulled out of the air — CO2 sources and sinks, in scientists’ parlance. [NASA's OCO-2 Mission in Pictures (Gallery)]
“With the launch of this spacecraft, decision-makers and scientists will get a much better idea of the role of carbon dioxide in climate change, as OCO-2 measures this greenhouse gas globally and provides incredibly new insights into where and how carbon dioxide is moving into, and then out of, the atmosphere,” Betsy Edwards, OCO-2 program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., told reporters during a pre-launch press briefing Sunday (June 30).
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to 400 ppm today, the highest concentration in at least 800,000 years.
Humanity is primarily responsible for this increase, researchers say. The species pumps 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, chiefly by burning fossil fuels such as coal and gasoline; the planet’s natural sinks remove just 20 billion tons annually, on average.