Global Warming: NASA

Global Warming: NASA

Alisa Opar
Published: 02/23/2009

Artist's concept of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory/NASA

I’m pretty excited about the launch tomorrow of NASA’s first spacecraft dedicated tracking atmospheric carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas driving global warming. Not so excited that I’m willing to leave the comforts of my bed at 4:51:30 a.m. EST to celebrate its liftoff from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, but still enthusiastic. (If you’re up for it, you can watch it live here.) We might finally find out where the planet is hiding billions of tons of carbon—enabling scientists to better predict future climate changes.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, or OCO, will collect a whopping eight million carbon dioxide measurements every 16 days. By taking measurements from above (as opposed to the current hodgepodge network instruments on the ground and mounted on airplanes), scientists hope to gain a clearer understanding of where the greenhouse gas comes from and where it’s absorbed.

Where all of the 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide we emit each year ends up is a mystery. About 40 percent stays in the air, and scientists believe the oceans absorb an additional 30 percent. The remainder disappears, presumably sucked up by a terrestrial sink, but nobody knows for certain.

The observatory might also shine light on why the amount of carbon dioxide land and oceans absorb varies annually.

Better understanding these fluctuations and identifying carbon sinks will help scientists to forecast global climate change, and could help policymakers and governments make more informed decisions on monitoring and controlling CO2 emissions.