Simply by breathing, humans have played a small part in the planet-wide balancing act called the carbon cycle throughout our existence. However, in the last few hundred years, we have taken a larger role. Our activities, such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation, are pushing the cycle out of its natural balance, adding more and more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Natural processes are working hard to keep the carbon cycle in balance by absorbing about half of our carbon emissions, limiting the extent of climate change. There’s a lot we don’t know about these processes, including where they are occurring and how they might change as the climate warms. To understand and prepare for the carbon cycle of the future, we have an urgent need to find out.
This animation shows the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, the first NASA spacecraft dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. In July 2014, NASA will launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) to study the fate of carbon dioxide worldwide. OCO-2 will not be the first satellite to measure carbon dioxide, but it’s the first with the observational strategy, precision, resolution and coverage needed to answer these questions about these little-monitored regions.
OCO-2’s scientific instrument uses spectrometers, which split sunlight into a spectrum of component colors, or wavelengths. Like all other molecules, carbon dioxide molecules absorb only certain colors of light, producing a unique pattern of dark features in the spectrum. The intensity of the dark features increases as the number of carbon dioxide molecules increases in the air that the spectrometer is looking through.
OCO-2 will collect 24 measurements a second over Earth’s sunlit hemisphere, totaling more than a million measurements each day. Fewer than 20 percent of these measurements will be sufficiently cloud-free to allow an accurate estimate of carbon dioxide, but that number will still yield 100 to 200 times as many measurements as the currently observing Japanese Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite (GOSAT) mission. The measurements will be used as input for global atmospheric models.
For more information about OCO-2, visit: https://oco.jpl.nasa.gov
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech