NASA is preparing to launch a satellite capable of monitoring carbon dioxide emissions from space. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) will be the first U.S. spacecraft dedicated to seeing the greenhouse gas from orbit, and could pave the way for new technology to enforce future global warming treaties.
But first OCO-2 needs to make it off the ground. An earlier version of the satellite (known simply as OCO) crashed into the ocean near Antarctica shortly after launch.
David Crisp was in Mission Control back in 2009, when the original launch took place. Crisp led the team that built the OCO mission and is now science team leader for OCO-2. As he watched the satellite fall back to Earth, he says, "I felt like somebody had rolled a concussion grenade into the room and it had gone off."
The stakes are high, Crisp says. Carbon dioxide coming from power plants and tailpipes is the main reason our planet is warming. Scientists have been obsessively watching CO2 levels rise for decades, but the way they do it hasn't changed.
"Since about 1958 we have been making very, very precise measurements of carbon dioxide by essentially filling bottles full of air, shipping them to Boulder, Colo., primarily these days, and running it through a series of very, very sensitive laboratory instruments," he says.
The samples show carbon dioxide levels are creeping up, but they can't tell scientists exactly where all that CO2 is coming from. "We don't have these snapshots that really show what's happening right now, over, let's say, all of Texas," says Steven Wofsy, an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University.
Understanding regional emissions is particularly important at the moment because cities in the developing world have been growing — adding power plants and cars. The growth is so fast that scientists cannot keep track of emissions with traditional accounting methods. There is also great uncertainty about how forests and oceans are absorbing CO2. Regulation of the gas can't move forward unless both human emissions and natural cycles can be well understood, Crisp says.
OCO-2 is only an experiment. The picture it makes will be very fuzzy, and it won't be able to look at every city on the planet. The air sampling method currently used will likely remain the gold standard for some time to come.
But OCO-2 might lead to new weather satellites that could also monitor emissions closely. And those satellites could be used to enforce future global warming treaties.
That's why the Obama administration decided to build a second copy of OCO. Crisp says that the inability to quantify emissions was a major stumbling block during the failed Copenhagen talks on climate in 2009.
To make sure things go right this time, NASA is paying more money for a more reliable rocket. As for the satellite itself, Crisp is hopeful it will work flawlessly: "We very rarely have an opportunity to build something twice," he says. "We had that opportunity this time, so we used a lot of extra care, and we have a lot of confidence."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Early tomorrow morning, NASA will launch a satellite capable of monitoring carbon dioxide emissions from space. It's seen as critical to understanding global warming. Tomorrow's launch is actually a second attempt by researchers. They tried to carry out the same mission five years ago. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, this time they're confident it'll work.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Carbon dioxide coming from power plants and tailpipes is the main reason our planet is warming. Scientists have been obsessively watching CO2 levels rise for decades. But the way they do it hasn't changed. David Crisp is a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
DAVID CRISP: Since about 1958, we've been making very, very precise measurements of carbon dioxide by essentially filling bottles full of air, shipping them to Boulder, Colorado, primarily these days, and running it through a series of very very sensitive laboratory instruments.
BRUMFIEL: The samples show carbon dioxide levels are creeping up. But they can't tell scientists exactly where all that CO2 is coming from.
STEVEN WOFSY: We don't have these snapshots that really show what's happening right now over let's say all of Texas.
BRUMFIEL: Steven Wofsy is an atmospheric scientist at Harvard University. What researchers would like is a picture of carbon dioxide as it rises from smokestacks. And that's why many are excited about a satellite that can survey CO2 from space.
WOFSY: People have been waiting for this now for a really long time. It's going to change the way we track and understand CO2 emissions.
BRUMFIEL: David Crisp, the guy you heard at the beginning, actually led the team that built the satellite. He called it the Orbiting Carbon Observatory or OCO. It could measure tiny changes in CO2 from high in orbit - amazing, considering carbon dioxide is an invisible gas. And actually it launched in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF COUNTDOWN TO LAUNCH)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: T-minus 10, nine, eight...
CRISP: We had what looked like an absolutely gorgeous launch.
MALE: ...Zero - and lift-off of the Taurus rocket with OCO, tracking a greenhouse gas in seek of clues to global warming.
BRUMFIEL: But about three-and-a-half minutes in came a problem. The rocket's nose cone didn't come off.
MALE: At all stations, it appears we've had a contingency with the OCO mission.
BRUMFIEL: The nose cone weighed the rocket down and Crisp watched his precious satellite fall back to earth.
CRISP: I felt like somebody had rolled a concussion grenade into the room and that it had gone off.
BRUMFIEL: Ten months later, a depressed Crisp was woken-up in the middle of the night.
CRISP: About two o'clock in the morning, I got a call from the White House.
BRUMFIEL: The Obama administration had decided the mission was so valuable it would pay for a carbon copy - the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. Crisp spent another four years building it. In the meantime, cities, particularly in the developing world, have been growing. The growth is so fast that scientists are losing track of emissions.
CRISP: The largest single uncertainty in our understanding of the emission of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere is now the burning of fossil fuels.
BRUMFIEL: OCO-2 is only an experiment. The picture it makes will be very fuzzy and it won't be able to look at every city on the planet. But it might lead to satellites that could. And that could be useful for enforcing future global warming treaties. All that will only happen if the new OCO-2 works. Will it?
CRISP: We very rarely have an opportunity to build something twice. We had that opportunity this time. So we used a lot of extra care. And so we have a lot of confidence.
BRUMFIEL: But just in case, Crisp will be standing in the control room one more time to see the mission through. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.