NASA launches mission to monitor Earth's breathing

NASA's spacecraft will be monitoring carbon dioxide levels in Earth's atmosphere from space.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer on
Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 15.01.32
Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA has launched a mission dedicated to measuring carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), launched on Wednesday at 2:56 a.m. local time, started its journey from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

Roughly 90 minutes after launch, the observatory separated from the rocked into an initial 429 mile (690 km) orbit. The spacecraft then underwent activation checks and established communication lines with NASA's team on the ground. So far, so good, and the observatory is expected to reach its final orbit as planned without any hitches. The original OCO, launched in 2009, didn't make it past launch. 

The observatory will be monitoring carbon dioxide levels in our world's atmosphere, and is designed to pinpoint areas where gas is both being emitted and absorbed. If carbon dioxide levels can be monitored and changes logged, this may help the agency predict how our climate will change in the future, as well as improve our understanding of global warming.

The observatory will measure the atmosphere above Earth's land and waters, and is expected to collect over 100,000 individual measurements of CO2 every day. This data will then be used by scientists to generate maps of carbon dioxide emission. In addition, OCO-2 will measure solar-induced fluorescence, an indicator of plant growth. This, in turn, will allow scientists to monitor how much CO2 is being absorbed by Earth's plant life.

It is hoped that OCO-2 will remain in orbit for a minimum of two years on the $468m mission.

Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington commented:

"This challenging mission is both timely and important. OCO-2 will produce exquisitely precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations near Earth's surface, laying the foundation for informed policy decisions on how to adapt to and reduce future climate change."

OCO-2 will begin monitoring CO2 levels in approximately 45 days, after the observatory reaches its final orbit.

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