If all goes as planned, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) will be blasted into space early tomorrow morning, and will become the first spacecraft dedicated to studying carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas driving global warming. Researchers say the satellite will answer long-standing questions. Thirty billion tons of carbon dioxide waft into the air from the burning of fossil fuels each year. About half stays in the air. The other half disappears. Where it all goes, nobody quite knows…. The new data could help improve climate models and the understanding of the “carbon sinks,” like oceans and forests, that absorb much of the carbon dioxide [The New York Times].
Annual variations in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere suggest that the carbon sinks may “fill up” some years and be unable to absorb more of the gas. These fluctuations make it hard to predict future conditions, says principal investigator David Crisp, of NASA: “People are asking us to predict how much the climate will change over the next 50 years…. How can I tell you how much CO2-induced climate change there’s going to be if I don’t know how much CO2 there’s going to be in the atmosphere?” he says. Even if it were possible to predict how much CO2 humans will put into the atmosphere, “that’s still only half the puzzle,” he says. “I still need to know how much is going to be absorbed by the earth” [Technology Review].
The satellite will blast off aboard a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg air force base in California, and will settle into an orbit that will allow it to circle the globe about 14 times a day. It will take constant measurements of carbon dioxide levels using an instrument with three spectrometers to analyze light reflected off Earth. Carbon dioxide absorbs certain wavelengths of light, particularly in the near infrared; by measuring how dim those parts of the spectrum are, the observatory can determine how many carbon dioxide molecules the light has passed through [The New York Times].
NASA says the entire mission has a budget of $278 million, making it a bargain in the expensive realm of space-based science. Once the satellite is successfully in orbit researchers will spend many months calibrating its instruments; they expect to start collecting data in earnest in October. The mission is currently scheduled to last two years, but if the primary mission is successful, NASA officials could extend OCO’s science operations well beyond 2011. The spacecraft carries enough fuel to remain in orbit for five to 10 years, Crisp said [SPACE.com].
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