Tomorrow at 09:56 UTC (02:56 CA time) the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 will be launched into orbit, if everything goes as planned. The goal of the mission is to infer spatio-temporally specific CO2 sources and sinks via continuous atmospheric estimates of CO2 concentrations. [Update: The launch was scrubbed at the last second due to a water delivery malfunction, and is now scheduled for the same time Wednesday]. It’s now been over five years since OCO-1 suffered a rocket failure that destroyed it, and this is the planned follow up mission, and it’s a big deal.
Varied arguments can be made about how science best advances; I’m firmly in the camp of those who believe that technological advancements that increase data collection capacities, is at or near, the top of any such list of arguments. For earth system science, I don’t think anything comes close to remote sensing data, in terms of sheer volume, standardized quality, and clearly defined and dependable algorithms for signal extraction. And within remote sensing, few instruments would seem, to me at least, to exceed the “wow” factor of a sensor that can estimate the spatio-temporally specific quantities of atmospheric trace gasses occurring at only ~ .04% by volume, i.e. carbon dioxide.
It’s in effect a sounder, but for trace gas estimation rather than the typical physical variables, which would seem to take some doing. Until now, all large scale estimates of the CO2 cycle have had to depend on a mix of a few permanent stations, aircraft flask sampling and a hodge-podged, impermanent set of eddy-covariance flux towers on the land. So, OCO-2 has the potential to greatly increase the data collection quality and quantity standards regarding CO2 dynamics. You can read a lot about the science behind the mission here. You can also watch the launch on NASA Television, and here is a very nice NASA overview video for the mission.
On the downside, the life expectancy of the instrument is only two years, but maybe we’ll get a Landsat 5 type of surprise on that, which seems fair enough, given the bad luck of the OCO-1.
Six hours pre-launch at Vandenberg AFB, California. Image by Kim Shiflett, NASA.