NASA has successfully launched its first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) soon will begin a minimum two-year mission to locate Earth's sources of and storage places for atmospheric CO2, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas responsible for climate change and a critical component of the planet's carbon cycle.
OCO-2 will take its studies of CO2 and the global carbon cycle to new heights, so to speak. The mission will produce the most detailed picture to date of natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their "sinks" — places on Earth's surface where CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. The observatory will study how these sources and sinks are distributed around the globe and how they change over time.
"Climate change is the challenge of our generation," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "With OCO-2 and our existing fleet of satellites, NASA is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society."
NASA hopes that OCO-2 will produce precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations near Earth's surface, laying the foundation for informed policy decisions on how to adapt to and reduce future climate change.
Carbon dioxide sinks are at the heart of a longstanding scientific puzzle that has made it difficult for scientists to accurately predict how CO2 levels will change in the future and how those changing concentrations will affect Earth's climate.
Precise measurements of the concentration of atmospheric CO2 are needed because background levels vary by less than two percent on regional to continental scales. Typical changes can be as small as one-third of one percent. OCO-2 measurements are designed to measure these small changes clearly.
OCO-2 is the second of five NASA Earth science missions scheduled to launch into space this year — the most new Earth-observing mission launches in one year in more than a decade. NASA monitors Earth's vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.
Last fall, a group of the world’s leading scientists forming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said they are now 95 percent confident that human influence is the dominant cause of global warming. As a result of past, present and expected future emissions of carbon dioxide, the effects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if carbon dioxide emissions stop, IPPC says. However, the scientists say it is not too late to take action.