NASA Launches Carbon Dioxide-Tracking Satellite
Published: July 2, 2014

This artist concept rendering provided by NASA shows their Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2. (AP/NASA/JPL-CALTECH)

NASA launched its first satellite to measure carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change, on Wednesday morning from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The satellite failed to launch Tuesday morning as scheduled due to a technical glitch with ground equipment, according to NASA. Wednesday's launch went off without a hitch.

The $468 million mission will collect global measurements of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere and  provide scientists with a better understanding of how the Earth's oceans, soils and forests absorb CO2, and whether that ability is changing.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that occurs both from natural processes, including forest fires, and from industrial activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels. C02 traps heat energy that would otherwise rise from the planet's surface and escape into space. Researchers say CO2 concentrations today are the highest they've been in the last million years.

(MORE: 7 Buildings That Could Help Us Survive a Changing Planet)

“Knowing what parts of Earth are helping to remove carbon from our atmosphere will help us understand whether they can keep on doing so in future,” said Michael Gunson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Quantifying these sinks now will help us predict how fast CO2 will build up in the future.”

NASA suffered a major scientific — and financial — disaster in 2009 when a rocket carrying the original satellite plummeted into the waters off Antarctica minutes after soaring from Vandenberg Air Force Base along the central California coast.

After a six- or seven-week shakedown, the satellite's lone instrument, a high-resolution spectrometer, will begin its mission of scanning the Earth. Once in polar orbit 438 miles high, the satellite will circle Earth every 100 minutes. It will measure carbon dioxide levels by looking at the intensity of sunlight reflected from the presence of CO2 in a column of air.

NASA hopes to begin making the data available for free to anyone beginning early next year.

MORE: One Part of Our Atmosphere is Improving

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