NewsAugust 13, 2014

New CO2 Satellite Sends First Data Back to Earth

Brian Kahn

By Brian Kahn

Follow @blkahn

NASA’s new carbon dioxide-monitoring satellite just opened its eyes for the first time. Based on the initial data its sending back to Earth, it appears to have 20/20 vision and scientists will soon have plenty more data to analyze.

An artist's rendering of OCO-2 in orbit.
Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory


The satellite, dubbed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, was launched last month as part of an effort to better understand how carbon moves around the globe. That includes tracking human emissions from burning fossil fuels as well as natural cycles related to the growing season and ocean currents.

The whole mission is slated to cost around $468 million over 2 years. So it’s understandable that the scientists and engineers who built and launched the satellite greeted the first batch of data with a lot of excitement and a little trepidation.

It went through a rocket launch that shakes the whole observatory pretty hard. Until you can turn it on and see the data, there’s always a little apprehension and uncertainty,” Ken Jucks, a OCO-2 program scientist, said. “So far every test on the satellite and the instrument within it are working as expected and that’s good news. We have every expectation that the data will be as advertised.”RELATEDCarbon Dioxide Passes 400 PPM Milestone, NOAA Finds
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Jucks and other program scientists are currently looking at the data in its rawest form. What might look like a series of zebra stripes actually shows different concentrations of CO2 and oxygen, depending on the wavelength of light observed. The initial data NASA released was taken during a flyover of Papua New Guinea.

Over the next few weeks, scientists will look at this and other data gathered by the satellite to fine tune and calibrate the instruments.

It’s worth taking a minute to consider the whole process. NASA was able to launch and maneuver a satellite into its current position 438 miles above the Earth’s surface. The instruments on board operate at optimal temperatures of 21°F and minus-243°F, respectively, and even after a bumpy trip through space, they’re functioning just like as did during tests back on the ground. In fact, those instruments are sending back 9,000 data snapshots per orbit. Those snapshots in turn contain eight separate analyses of CO2 and oxygen. And scientists are receiving all of that back on Earth and, if all goes according to plan, they’ll be sharing it with the world by the end of the year.

A spectral analysis showing some of the first data acquired by OCO-2 on a flyover of Papua New Guinea on August 6.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory


It’s an amazing process and one that should provide some answers to important scientific questions in the next 2 years. While public interest in CO2 generally to peak in May when atmospheric CO2 is at its highest, that’s not the only period scientists are interested in monitoring.

“The interesting processes that control carbon dioxide occur year round,” Jucks said.

Jucks said the transition between the growing season and fall, as well as how CO2 is transported around the ocean, are both interesting to look at from a scientific standpoint.

“Of course humans are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere pretty much year round as well,” he said.

With the clear vision OCO-2 has shown so far, it’s likely that the picture will become a little sharper for the rest of us soon.

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