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NASA To Launch Carbon-Sleuthing Satellite

By | February 2, 2009

      NASA will launch a satellite that will measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and track down its source, with liftoff on a Taurus XL rocket set for 1:51 a.m. PT Feb. 23 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., NASA officials said.

      The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), costing $278 million including two years of operation, will detail the buildup of carbon swirling around Earth, the officials said in a media briefing at NASA headquarters in Washington.

      OCO will enter a 438-mile-high sun-synchronous near-polar orbit, where its findings can be compared and contrasted with those of six other satellites, briefers said. NASA experts also are interested in taking observations using Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, a Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] product, so that those observations could be used to validate OCO readings.

      OCO setup will require months, but the bird should be operational by fall.

      Air-sample data gathered by aircraft and land stations also will be incorporated in the study

      Carbon buildup in the atmosphere, in a relentless rise since the 1950s, has been blamed for global warming. Billions of tons of the greenhouse gas are spewed into the atmosphere annually. That increase has been measured in locales as varied as the South Pole and Hawaii.

      OCO will identify just where the carbon dioxide buildup originates, which can include everything from giant factories to exhaled human breath and rotting vegetation.

      The satellite also will identify carbon "sinks" that extract carbon in its various forms from the atmosphere. For example, plants remove carbon dioxide from the air.

      While some areas of Earth have few air sampling stations, the OCO satellite can scan the entire planet.

      OCO will measure carbon dioxide in various ways, such as by looking downward toward Earth (the nadir measurement) or at an angle, for a "glint" reading. That is obtained by aiming the OCO sensor toward a spot on Earth, such as an ocean, where the sun is glinting off the surface, and then examining the reflected light to obtain a highly accurate carbon reading.

      Led by a NASA center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the OCO was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB]. Orbital also built the Taurus XL rocket that will launch OCO.

      It will make some 8 million measurements every 16 days over two years, attempting to track down where some missing carbon has gone.

      Since the inventions of the steam engine, internal combustion engine and electrical generation, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose from 280 to 385 parts per million.

      Some 40 percent remained in the atmosphere, roughly 30 percent was absorbed in oceans, and the remainder has wound up on land, but just where is unknown, a question that OCO may answer.

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