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NASA Launching Carbon-Tracking Satellite

By Ari Phillips (Think Progress) - June 30, 2014

While in the political world carbon dioxide can still be referred to as an invisible, harmless gas for years scientists at NASA have been studying the way its dramatic rise in atmospheric concentration is affecting life on earth. On Tuesday morning, in a major landmark in understanding this relationship, NASA is launching a satellite to inventory where and how carbon is absorbed and released across the planet. It will be the nation’s first satellite exclusively monitoring carbon dioxide.

The OCO-2, or Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, will track CO2 as it’s emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes and absorbed into the ocean or taken up by plant life. Carbon dioxide levels are currently at their highest atmospheric concentration in the last 800,000 to 15 million years. Recent data shows that June will be the third month in a row with average carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million — a symbolic threshold first passed on May 9, 2013. With humans adding some 100 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every day, scientists are anxious to better understand where all the carbon dioxide is going and what it will mean for climate change.

“Knowing what parts of Earth are helping to remove carbon from our atmosphere will help us understand whether they can keep on doing so in future,” project scientist Michael Gunson, of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Associated Press. “Quantifying these sinks now will help us predict how fast CO2 will build up in the future.”

Carbon absorbing elements, such as trees, are known as carbon sinks while emitters are known as sources.

The $468 million endeavor will lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Over the course of its two-year mission it will observe the same spots over the Earth every 16 days, taking repeated measurements tracking the rise and fall of CO2 emissions. Scientists are especially keen to get a better idea of where all the additional carbon is going, and how much room for absorption is left. If oceans and forests reach capacity, it could cause atmospheric concentrations to rise sharply.

“Have you seen a new rainforest spring out of nowhere that wasn’t there before?” Dr. Crisp, the leader of the science team for the mission, asked the New York Times.

Scientists know that about half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions end up trapped in the atmosphere with about a quarter of that getting absorbed into the ocean. The final quarter is absorbed by plants, but the details of how this happens are vague. What scientists know is that the proportion has remained relatively constant even as the total amount of atmospheric carbon has climbed from concentrations of 315 parts per million in the 1950s to 400 parts per million today.

“Somewhere on earth, on land, one-quarter of all our carbon emissions released through fossil fuel emissions is disappearing,” said Crisp. “We can’t identify the processes responsible for this. Wouldn’t it be nice to know where?”

NASA initially attempted to start answering this question in 2009, back when a carbon cap-and-trade system seemed like a possibility in Congress. But the mission failed after a hardware malfunction caused the satellite to crash into the ocean shortly after takeoff. Two years later, despite a design change, the same malfunction occurred again when the nose cone protecting the satellite failed to separate after the launch. These two costly mishaps led NASA to settle on the Delta 2 rocket this time a round, which has a history of reliable launches.

The 300-pound carbon dioxide measuring instrument must be extremely accurate and sensitive, using spectrometers to divide light into wavelengths like a prism. Using this information scientists will be able to determine where CO2 molecules are concentrated. CO2 is currently monitored primarily from 100 or so ground observation stations, but the information provided by the OCO-2 will greatly expand on the available data.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 is the second of five launches this year for NASA’s earth sciences division. Michael Freilich, director of the earth sciences division, told the New York Times, “There is no question that the Obama administration puts a very high priority on understanding the earth.”