Forget the Mission to Mars. Forget the Moon Colonies. Forget everything you saw on Star Trek. The most important space program of the 21st century will consist of a solitary 468 million dollar satellite, quietly orbiting the Earth over the next several decades, dispassionately processing information about atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for review by NASA analysts tasked with measuring the slow death of the planet as we know it.
The world's first satellite dedicated solely to tracking atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide is being developed at a Gilbert, Ariz., manufacturing facility, as NASA scientists move to make space the next frontier in the study of global climate change.Cleverly named OCO-2 ("Orbiting Carbon Observatory"), the satellite is tentatively scheduled for launch next July. It will take about 200,000 atmospheric samples a day.
The satellite, estimated to cost about $468 million, promises to paint a more detailed picture of the environmental impact of global warming, including how forests and oceans are reacting to higher levels of CO2, scientists say.
Michael Gunson, a Project Scientist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, discussed the reasons for the satellite's launch:
"It's obvious that human emissions, particularly within the developing world, have been increasing at a staggering rate," said Michael Gunson..."It's going to affect all of us, for example, if we find that the response of the great rain forests in the Amazon, the Congo and Indonesia is very sensitive to climate change."The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the Earth's temperature will rise between 2.5 and 10 degrees within the next century, so OCO-2 will not be lacking for work, even well beyond "the tipping point" of no return for the environment.
The new satellite will operate from about 400 miles above the planet's surface to help scientists track the movement of CO2 from sources like automobiles and factories to absorption areas like forests and cold-water seas, Gunson said.Our NASA administrator is a former Space Shuttle Commander named Charles Bolden. On Friday he visited the Gilbert, Arizona, facility where OCO-2 is being built. His remarks touched on the urgency underlying the satellite's mission.
Combined with data from other satellites, OCO-2 will also help scientists track crop production, water resources and vegetation health, Gunson said.
"Along the way, we will naturally uncover information about the patterns of human emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," he added.
"Ideally, the satellite should have been launched a long time ago," Bolden said. "This is not new. It has just become critical because we haven't done anything in the intervening time."A less expensive version of the OCO crashed into the ocean near Antarctica after a failed launch in 2009.
Bolden proved himself to be a master of understatement during his visit:
"Planetary science, heliophysics, everything else is really important, but if we don't get the Earth straight, none of that stuff is going to make any difference," Bolden said.He also took the Republican House to task, noting that sequester cuts have made it nearly impossible for NASA to continue its operations.
"We probably can't survive in the mode we're operating right now," Bolden said. "We have got to have the money to do the things the nation is demanding of us."There's that understatement again.
Bolden said it is time for people to look outside their own "bubble" and pay attention to global trends. Information collected by OCO-2 will be made available to the international community, he said.
"It's one big ocean, contrary to what people think," Bolden said. "What happens in the Pacific affects what happens in the Atlantic. What happens over New York affects what happens over Shanghai or Moscow.
"We don't live on a partitioned planet," Bolden said. "It's one big system, and if we don't get it right, we will destroy humanity."