FromQuarkstoQuasars

NASA Launches Satellite to Monitor Carbon Dioxide

Jolene CreightonJuly 3rd 2014
Nasa's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission (OCO-2) launches from Vandenberg air force base Image via Gene Blevins/Reuters
Nasa’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission (OCO-2) launches from Vandenberg air force base Image via Gene Blevins/Reuters

Global warming is, quite possibly, one of the most fiercely contested issues confronting modern civilization. Scientists assert that global temperatures are on the rise, and that humanity must alter its course, or there will be serious consequences. However, a number of individuals in popular media deny the science behind global warming. Ultimately these individuals are backed by certain politicians who question the scientific consensus, call the accuracy of peer reviewed findings into question, and fuel the global warming debate.  This division creates a rift between what scientists discover and the science that individuals are willing to accept.

Hopefully, the latest NASA project will help bring scientists and the general public closer together. Recently, NASA launched its first spacecraft that is devoted to monitoring atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is the heat-trapping gas thought to be responsible for much of Earth’s recent warming trend. To clarify, this project is not meant to determine whether or not global warming is a reality, as scientists have already made that determination. Rather, the project is meant to help clarify the role that carbon dioxide plays in global warming, which will help us better understand the role the humanity has in this process (human induced global warming is known as “anthropogenic global warming”).

The role that CO2 has in global warming is a primary concern, as the Industrial Revolution significantly altered the amount of CO2 in our environment. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to 400 ppm today. Some deniers assert that we have only been measuring CO2 levels for the last few years, so we really can’t tell whether the levels are abnormal or worthy of concern; however, this is based on a faulty understanding of Earth Science, as the geological record allows us to track CO2 data, and reveals that this is the highest concentration in the last 800,000 years.

The spacecraft is known as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite (or OCO-2, for short). This craft launched earlier this week (July 2nd) via a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket.

The satellite is set to measure carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere an amazing 24 times every second. Ultimately, this will help to reveal a staggering amount of detail related to where carbon dioxide is being produced (where the CO2 sources are) and where it is being drained out of the air (CO2 sinks). Ultimately, this will help scientists see the pattern that CO2 follows. Betsy Edwards, OCO-2 program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., states,

“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.

Unfortunately, it seems that humanity is largely responsible for this increase in CO2, as we send 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year by burning fossil fuels (like coal and gasoline) and through our agricultural practices (like our excessive amount of cattle and our rampant deforestation). Unfortunately, the planet is not able to match our production, as the planet’s sinks only remove about 20 billion tons annually (and keep in mind that the 40 billion tons produced  by human civilization do not included the CO2 that our planet produces naturally) .

Edwards continues, “Ultimately, scientists predict that looking at these changes over time will give us patterns that are weeks or months or years long [and] that will help them to unravel the mysteries of the carbon cycle.”

At present time, the mission comes with a $465-million price tag, and it slated to run for two years; however, it has enough fuel to operate far longer. This is NASA’s second attempt to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide from orbit. Unfortunately, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite crashed into the Pacific Ocean in February 2009 shortly after launch, as its Orbital Sciences Taurus XL rocket failed to open properly.

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