NASA Launches Carbon-Tracking Satellite

A long-awaited NASA satellite to make the first precise, global measurements of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere reached orbit on Wednesday, setting the stage for a more detailed understanding of the planet’s changing climate -- and if any mitigation efforts are working.

The satellite, called Orbiting Carbon Observatory, or OCO, blasted off atop a Delta 2 rocket from a fog-shrouded Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 2:56 a.m. PDT/5:56 a.m. EDT. An hour later, it was released from the rocket’s second stage.

Over the next few weeks, OCO will fly itself to join a train of polar-orbiting environmental satellites circling about 440 miles above Earth.

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NASA expected to have OCO collecting data five years ago, but the original spacecraft was lost when its launcher’s payload shroud failed to open.

“Seldom do we get a second chance to be able to do a mission like this,” Geoffery Yoder, a NASA deputy associate administrator, told reporters at a post-launch news conference.

Orbital Sciences Corp built both the original OCO and the replacement, but lost the launch contract to United Launch Alliance.

An initial attempt to fly OCO-2 on Tuesday was scuttled less than a minute before liftoff because of a problem with the launch pad’s water system. Technicians replaced a faulty valve and the rocket blasted off right on schedule early Wednesday.

“There was pure joy ... at spacecraft sep (separation). I can tell you that,” launch director Tim Dunn said in a post-launch interview on NASA Television.

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The satellite will be positioned to overfly the same point on Earth at the same time of day every 16 days, allowing scientists to ferret out patterns in carbon dioxide levels on a seasonal basis.

That should help unravel a long-standing mystery about how about half the carbon dioxide that is put into the atmosphere is reabsorbed by forests and oceans.

The trend seems to hold even in light of the increased amounts of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning and other human activities, said project scientist Michael Gunson, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“We still aren’t quite sure ... which are the key processes involved here,” Gunson told reporters before launch.

“Trying to get to a point of understanding the details of those processes will give us some insight into the future and what’s likely to happen over next decades, even if we continue to consume more and more fossil fuels and emit more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Gunson said.

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NASA intends to freely and widely distribute OCO data in hopes that research organizations will use it to make better climate predictions.

“We’d also hope that policy-makers might use some of this information to, for example, start to take a look at the impact of some of the emission-reduction activities that go or, or deforestation and understanding what’s happening globally,” added OCO program executive Betsy Edwards, at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.

Scientists hope to be releasing the first measurements from OCO by early next year.