Researchers await launch of NASA carbon observatory

By Tina Hilding, College of Engineering & Architecture

nasa-logo-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University researchers have been heavily involved in the design, development and testing of a NASA observatory set to launch at 2:56 a.m. Tuesday, July 1, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) will measure precise carbon dioxide levels in the earth’s atmosphere from space for the first time. The goal is to provide information to help understand the effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) on global warming.

A technician readies the observatory for the upcoming launch. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

An earlier version of the instrument failed to reach orbit in 2009 when the rocket carrying it plunged into the ocean near Antarctica.

Since 2003, George Mount, emeritus professor in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been a member of the review board for the JPL-led project. The board oversees instrument construction, testing, calibration, instrument and satellite systems and software.

Mount’s leadership has been in science for the satellite as well as optical design, testing and characterization.

Currently, high precision carbon dioxide measurements are made from the ground at a handful of locations worldwide. Measurements are important because increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from human emissions of fossil fuels contribute to global warming.

Scientists have an excellent understanding of the levels of carbon emissions, which total about eight gigatons per year worldwide.

But only half of the carbon dioxide emitted yearly stays in the atmosphere. The rest is taken up by oceans or biomass, but nobody understands exactly where it is going and why the amount that stays in the atmosphere varies dramatically year to year.

The OCO will use three infrared grating spectrometers to measure carbon dioxide levels throughout the global atmosphere. It will basically be like a pencil that draws a line around the world that is 10 kilometers wide.

While the earth rotates under it, the OCO will precisely measure the carbon dioxide column in its pencil line. The cycle will repeat every 16 days.