NASA recently launched its first satellite dedicated to measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide. Colorado State University scientists helped develop the algorithms that will crunch data collected by the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite.
Chris O’Dell watched the launch of NASA’s first satellite dedicated to measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide through a thick California fog in the early morning hours on July 2, hoping this time, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory would actually begin orbiting.
An hour or so later he got word.
“I’m so excited that the launch of OCO-2 was successful, and we can start collecting data and doing the science this mission was intended for,” said O’Dell, assistant professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who has been part of the mission for nearly a decade.
A mission years in the making
The July 2 launch was a long time coming for O’Dell and a team of researchers from CSU’s Department of Atmospheric Science and Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.
O’Dell started working on the OCO mission as a post-doctoral researcher in 2005. He now leads the CSU team that helped develop the sophisticated algorithms that will crunch data collected by the satellite.
CSU researchers attended the launch of the original OCO satellite in February 2009 and were riding a bus back from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base when they learned that the mission had ended roughly 11 minutes after launch.
The nose cone of the rocket carrying the OCO satellite failed to separate, plunging the satellite back into the Earth’s atmosphere where it burned up without ever reaching orbit.
Then, the launch of OCO-2 – a near replica of the original – was delayed a day after a water-based noise abatement system malfunctioned on the launch pad.
“CSU has been working hard on this mission for many years now,” O’Dell said. “We’ve been involved with this mission from the original concept design process.”
OCO-2 will provide scientists around the world with vital information about the amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and in natural “sinks” such as plants and oceans.
A “missing piece”
Roughly 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere annually, which is the equivalent of every U.S. household putting out 40 bags of trash every week for a year.
About half of that stays in the atmosphere and the other half is absorbed by the earth’s oceans, as well as plants on land.
What scientists want to understand – what the data collected by OCO-2 will help inform – is where those sinks of atmospheric CO2are located on the planet. This information will help explain certain phenomena such as why Earth’s plants continue to accumulate greater and greater amounts of carbon dioxide, which indicates they are growing faster than they are dying.
Some researchers theorize it’s because warming temperatures are extending growing seasons and enabling plants to grow in once-inhospitable places. Others believe it’s because the Earth’s flora and fauna are bathed in more CO2, a vital ingredient to plant growth.
Whichever is the case, data collected by OCO-2 will help researchers determine where carbon dioxide is emitted and where it is taken up, which is considered a key “missing piece” of the climate story.
“This information plays a huge role in our ability to predict future climate change,” O’Dell said.
A clearer picture
The OCO-2 satellite is expected to orbit the Earth for two years and will collect data at a higher resolution and with greater accuracy than has been previously possible.
Until this month, the only satellite dedicated to collecting carbon dioxide data was the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite – or GOSAT – which was launched by the Japanese space agency in 2009.
And while that data has provided new insight into these carbon dioxide sinks and sources, O’Dell said, it does not have the resolution or accuracy of OCO-2.
OCO-2 is equipped with a suite of sensors that can quantify the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide down to about 1 part per million. It takes 24 measurements per second.
OCO-2 also will be able measure the faint “glow” emitted by plants undergoing photosynthesis, which will further help to determine “how well and how fast plants are growing in a given area, or conversely if they are under stress and not growing well,” according to O’Dell.
“It will give us a better picture of what is happening,” O’Dell added. “We tell people that this data will help us to understand, quite literally, how the Earth breathes.”