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NASA Satellite To Create Map Of Carbon Emissions, Absorption

December 18, 2008

NASA said it is preparing to launch a satellite that will be capable of spotting the source of carbon emissions.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) will give scientists a better understanding of the location of CO2 emissions and absorption.

“This is NASA’s first spacecraft specifically dedicated to mapping carbon dioxide,” said principal investigator David Crisp, who provided more details about the “ËœCO2 Hunter’ during the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting this week.

“The objective of the OCO mission is to make measurements that are so precise that they can be used to look for surface ‘sources’ and ‘sinks’ of CO2.”

The OCO is slated to launch on a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on February 23, 2009.

The OCO will orbit the Earth with the mission of creating a global map of CO2 concentration so that scientists can better understand where the gas is entering the atmosphere and where it is being absorbed by land plants and the oceans.

“We know where most of the fossil fuel emissions are coming from; we also know where things like cement manufacturing are producing large CO2 emissions,” explained Dr Crisp, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“But there are other things such as biomass (forest) burning and clearing; and we don’t have a good quantification of the CO2 released by those processes.

“If you take out the fossil fuels – for which we understand the CO2 source to within 10% – and look at the rest of the carbon dioxide that’s introduced into the atmosphere by our activities, it’s uncertain by 100%.

“The idea is that OCO will help us to constrain that a whole lot better.”

Researchers also struggle to understand the key locations where the Earth absorbs CO2.

Some 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions is estimated to be absorbed, most of it into the Earth’s oceans.

But science’s description of the other major absorbers is poor, commented UK Earth-observation scientist Shaun Quegan.

“There’s a bunch of atmospheric collection flasks dotted around the planet and when we apply the models to their data, the models all show there is a carbon sink in northern mid-latitudes,” he said.

“But whether that’s in North America, in Siberia, or wherever and what’s causing it is a big debate.”

Dr. Crisp said the time is crucial for OCO to begin mapping regions of CO2 absorption on Earth.

“Let’s say we found that the boreal forests in Canada and Siberia were the primary sinks of CO2 because of their incredibly rapid growth during summer months when the Sun is up,” speculated Dr Crisp.

“Well those environments are changing dramatically right now.

“Will they still be the primary absorbers of CO2 as time goes on? We don’t really know how big an impact they’re having right now.

“This is why OCO is so essential.”

Image Caption: Artist’s impression of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory

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