CO2 Hunter Key to Climate Change Mystery
artist concept of Orbiting Carbon Observatory

This is an artist's concept of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. The spacecraft is the first dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the principal human-produced driver of climate change. Image credit: NASA
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About 300 miles south of Kennedy Space Center, there's a marine sanctuary where orange anemones move freely and yellow-speckled fish dart behind coral and sponges. It's Florida's vibrant underwater ecosystem; and it could be in grave danger.

Every time we start our car or turn on the TV, we emit carbon dioxide that settles in the oceans, making them warmer and a little more acidic.

"Methane, CO2 from automobiles and fossil fuel are considered major contributors to current climate change patterns and the increasing temperature of oceans," said Carlton Hall, Dynamac's chief scientist and manager of the Ecological Program at Kennedy.

Currently, NASA's Aqua satellite is detecting carbon dioxide about six miles above Earth's surface. But to really understand long-term global climate change, scientists need to get closer.

A new NASA satellite, set to launch atop a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, will do that.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, or OCO, is the first of its kind, built to measure and track carbon dioxide "sources" and "sinks" in Earth's atmosphere.

"The OCO mission is the Launch Services Program's first primary Taurus mission and the team is excited," said NASA Launch Director Chuck Dovale. "Although the systems are very similar to that of the Pegasus, for which LSP is very familiar, the application of this ground lit rocket system is quite a bit different than the air lit Pegasus.

"On the heels of a very successful NOAA-N prime mission, LSP is proud to be launching another Earth-observing spacecraft. With the new administration having more of a focus on Earth science, LSP looks forward to contributing to and adding to NASA’s knowledge of Earth in the years to come."

OCO will look at more than natural sources and sinks, which roughly balance each other out. It also will study human sources that when thrown into the mix could potentially cause global warming. And it's not just ocean reefs that are in danger. The belief is the effects of carbon dioxide play out like a game of dominos.

Coral reefs are natural barriers that protect islands and other coastal areas from beach erosion, changes in the ocean's salinity can cause sea mammals to become vulnerable in their own environment, and rising ocean temperatures can cause algal blooms, such as red tide.

Here on the Space Coast, we already may be encountering the effects first-hand with severe weather.

"Earth is like a heat engine," Hall said. "Greenhouse gases trap heat and that energy has to go somewhere. So even though the actual daily temperatures we experience seem normal, we may see stranger hurricane patterns, colder winters, or droughts in places where they've never occurred before.

"Major advances in data from satellites, such as OCO, will help us figure out how these different processes are linked and interlinked. We'll be able to sort out the puzzle."

"Most citizens can understand the very tangible benefits that an Earth-observing satellite can provide," Dovale said. "We certainly are expecting good things from OCO to help us better understand how CO2 is affecting our planet."

NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center