NASA Launches Carbon Tracking Satellite

NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite into space early Wednesday morning, following the failure of a similar spacecraft to reach orbit in 2009.

The satellite’s mission is to track atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, considered the chief culprit behind global warming.

The craft launched at 2:56 AM local time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, entering low-Earth orbit 56 minutes later. Project Manager Ralph Basilio said the flight was a “perfect ride into space.” The flight was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but technical problems with the launch pad’s water system caused the flight to be delayed until today.

This was NASA’s second attempt at launching a satellite to study carbon levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. In 2009, the original Orbiting Carbon Observatory was launched from the same site. However, the rocket failed 30 seconds into the flight, and the craft was lost to the ocean off the coast of Antarctica. NASA then spent five years, and hundreds of millions of dollars, building a nearly-exact replica of the original spacecraft.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is largely considered by scientists to be the primary culprit behind global warming and climate change. The gas occurs naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere (from such natural processes as forest fires). However, the burning of fossil fuels has contributed to high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; in April, 2014, scientists announced that the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were the highest they had been in 800,000 years. The gas contributes to global warming by trapping heat energy in the atmosphere – heat energy that would otherwise escape into space.

The satellite launched today will orbit the Earth’s poles every 100 minutes, measuring CO2 levels by monitoring the intensity of sunlight reflected back. Michael Gunson, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that “Knowing what parts of Earth are helping to remove carbon from our atmosphere will help us understand whether they can keep on doing so in future. Quantifying these sinks now will help us predict how fast CO2 will build up in the future.”

Shortly after the launch, NASA Tweeted this photo of the spacecraft in polar orbit:

Apart from routine launches to deliver crew, cargo and supplies to the International Space Station, NASA’s next mission is scheduled for November, 2014. The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite will study soil moisture and freeze/thaw cycles to help climate scientists better understand the roil soil moisture plays in the Earth’s climate cycles.

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