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NASA mission will change how we see atmospheric carbon

Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, a NASA mission launched in 2014, has spent years sending back information about global hotspots for atmospheric carbon.

In a few short years, it will be joined by a new satellite, the Geostationary Carbon Observatory, to give NASA scientists another vantage point for studying carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere.

GeoCarb, slated for launch in the early 2020s, will remain locked on to the Americas. While in geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles above the ground, it will measure carbon levels over the land making up North and South America and return the data to NASA scientists for analysis. The satellite will be able to collect up to 10 million observations daily.

It’s a change from OCO-2, which has an orbit that allows it to take samples from all over the globe. While the existing satellite can also take many samples daily, its low-Earth orbit means those samples are widely spaced and miss out on the ability to observe a region over time.

“GeoCarb will complement measurements by OCO-2 and other low-Earth orbiting satellites by filling in data gaps in both time and space,” Dr. Berrien Moore said in a press release. “It will be more of a regional mapping mission than a global sampling mission.”

Moore, of the University of Oklahoma, is the project’s principal investigator.

The new NASA mission will expand the agency’s ability to monitor carbon emissions, such as adding the ability to observe how weather patterns might change carbon concentrations over land masses.

“That’s the power a geostationary orbit brings,” Moore said. “Data from OCO-2 have already shown that large-scale weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña affect the large-scale pattern of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and that’s extremely important.”

NASA scientists will also be able to look into unanswered questions, such as the true impact of methane emissions over the continental United States, or how well the Amazonian rainforests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The satellite could also help NASA track methane leaks, saving the natural gas industry millions of dollars each year.

GeoCarb will use technology pioneered by OCO-2, with instruments designed to measure carbon and methane levels using reflection, as well as to monitor plant photosynthesis.

The exact orbital location for GeoCarb has not yet been assigned by SES-Government Solutions.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Image credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin/University of Oklahoma

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