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NASA Satellite Launched to Help Track 'Challenge of Our Generation'

Carbon dioxide monitoring craft to gather precise data on carbon sources and sinks

NASA scientists give a briefing on the OCO-2. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA on Tuesday launched a rocket carrying a satellite that will track atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas fueling climate change—the "challenge of our generation."

Called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), the satellite will gather data needed to "characterize sources and sinks [places where CO2 is stored] on regional scales" and will "quantify CO2 variability over the seasonal cycles year after year," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains.

Fears that "time is running out" to take meaningful action on climate change have grown since the world passed the "sobering milestone" of 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere last year. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated, "Climate change is the challenge of our generation."

Finding out exactly where all of this CO2 heading into the atmosphere is being "mopped up," that is, where it's being absorbed by carbon sinks like forests and the ocean, is one of the questions the scientists are hoping to answer with the OCO-2 data.

"Scientists currently don't know exactly where and how Earth's oceans and plants have absorbed more than half the carbon dioxide that human activities have emitted into our atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era," said David Crisp, OCO-2 science team leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Because of this, we cannot predict precisely how these processes will operate in the future as climate changes. For society to better manage carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure the natural source and sink processes," Crisp stated.

NASA attempted a similar effort to track atmospheric CO2 in 2009 with the OCO-2's predecessor, the OCO, but that satellite failed to reached orbit.

You can follow the OCO-2 on Twitter as it completes its two-year mission. You can watch the NASA videos below to see liftoff of the rocket and hear some of the NASA scientists discuss the importance of the mission:


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