Some of the loyal OUR SPACE readers will remember the bitter disappointment of the launch failure of the first Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009. The fairing covering the spacecraft did not separate after launch and its added weight kept OCO-1 from reaching orbit and it subsequently re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and burnt up during its uncontrolled downward plunge.
It’s taken five years for a replacement to be ready, but at long last, OCO-2 is now in orbit and undergoing a rigorous checkout process, some orbit adjustments, and if all goes well it will begin science operations in mid-August. With a textbook launch from Vandenberg Spaceport atop a venerable Delta 2 rocket the spacecraft rode into the night sky.
Climatologists all over the planet are ecstatic and can’t wait to get to work analyzing the vast amount of data that OCO will produce on carbon dioxide distribution in Earth’s atmosphere. Up until now they only had data from ground-based monitoring stations, and while there’s a good number of those more than two-thirds of them are in North America and Western Europe. There is little to no data for Africa, Asia and South America.
Earlier this year a joint NASA/JAXA (the Japanese space program) mission provided the first space-based data but OCO will generate far more exact measurements with pinpoint accuracy and higher resolution. All that means better data.
But why do we need data about carbon dioxide concentrations?
Most of you know that carbon dioxide is naturally present in air — a small part of what you exhale as you read this column is indeed CO2. In nature carbon dioxide is both released and absorbed by bodies of water and land-based plants. Both absorb more than they release and thus carbon is sequestered in the ocean and in plants. Carbon dioxide concentration in the air varies naturally according to the seasons — it’s always lower in the spring and summer when plants use the carbon to build their leaves, and it’s higher in fall and winter when they go dormant.
Over the course of a year carbon dioxide concentrations yo-yo in fairly predictable amounts, but since serious data has been gathered starting in the early sixties the average quantity has been going up and up, due to human influence — mostly the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil. In fact, carbon dioxide concentrations have never been higher in the past million or so years.
Wait a minute, you say. How do we know about what it was like, say, 80,000 years ago? Easy — ice core drillings. According to David Crisp, OCO-2 Science Team Leader, if you drill down into the Antarctic ice you will find tiny air bubbles embedded in the ice which are like minuscule time capsules containing uncontaminated air from eras long past. Scientists have been able to analyze the contents of those bubbles and voila — useable data.
Bottom line: we have changed the climate of our planet tremendously, and the only way to reverse it is to give nature time to catch up with the extra stuff we’ve put into the air. And while air quality in the developed world has improved dramatically, areas with less stringent environmental regulations, such as China, are now major and ever-increasing culprits in mucking up the air that we all breathe.
OCO will monitor CO2 levels with mind-boggling accuracy. While the entire process is still poorly understood OCO will help us figure out how concentrations of this well-known greenhouse gas correlate with climate changes, global temperatures and weather patterns.
Learn more about OCO-2 at http://oco.jpl.nasa.gov/
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at email@example.com