NASA is launching the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 to solve the missing carbon mystery

Public Domain NASA

This is the second version, after the first failed in 2009

The original Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite was launched by a Taurus XL rocket in February 2009, but the launch was a failure and OCO never reached orbit. It's a real shame, because the costly piece of sophisticated equipment ($273 million for the whole launch) was supposed to be NASA's first satellite dedicated to studying carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from space. Fast-forward to 2014, and a carbon copy (ha!) of the original OCO, unsurprisingly called OCO-2, will be launched on from California on a Delta 2 rocket on July 1, 2014 at 2:56 AM (in about 17 hours, as of this writing). If all goes well this time, OCO-2 will help us better understand our planet and hopefully solve the 'missing carbon' mystery.

Scientists are very good at keeping track of how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere, and can track where most of it goes, but there's a large fraction that is reabsorbed, and they don't know exactly where. OCO-2 could provide a high resolution global map showing exactly where the carbon is going (forests, oceans, etc).

Here's a cute video by NASA, done in the style of noir films, about the carbon mystery:

NASA OCO-2NASA/Public Domain

OCO-2 will fly in a near-polar orbit, 438 miles above our heads, observing most of the Earth's surface at least once every 16 days.

Its measurements should help us better understand how carbon sinks, such as forests and oceans, are doing and if they are still absorbing as much carbon as we think or if they are getting full and slowing down. Either way, it'll have a big impact on our planet's future climate and we need to know.

NASA OCO-2NASA/Public Domain

OCO-2 is part of a "train" of satellites that measure different things. Because they are on similar orbits, the data they gather can more easily be correlated and analyzed together. Other Earth-observation satellites that are part of the "train" are the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument, which flies on the Earth Observing System Aqua platform and the Tropospheric Emission Spectrometer (TES), which flies on the Earth Observing System Aura.

Here's a great little video on the OCO-2 mission, with some computer-generated sequences that show what it'll look like once in orbit, and some explanations of the mission's goal by NASA scientists:

Here are further details on OCO-2's mission, and why it's important to figure out where the carbon dioxide that we're pumping out in the atmosphere is going:

And finally, a more general video on

Best of luck tomorrow, NASA! Keep up the good work of helping us better understand, and thus defend, the Earth!


Tags: Global Climate Change | Global Warming Science | Nasa | Space


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