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NASA to Launch Carbon Dioxide-Sniffing Spacecraft

Jun 13, 2014 03:22 PM EDT

NASA is making final preparations for next month's launch of a spacecraft that will provide scientists with a better understanding of what's driving Earth's changing climate, specifically looking at carbon dioxide (CO2).

The agency's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite is gearing up for its July 1 liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The mission - one of five new NASA Earth science missions set to launch in 2014 - is designed to give a comprehensive look at atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases that are thought to be responsible for Earth's recent warming trend.

OCO-2 "will measure global concentrations of carbon dioxide and watch the Earth breathe," Betsy Edwards, OCO-2 program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said via

Once it reaches polar orbit 438 miles (705 kilometers) above Earth, OCO-2 will collect hundreds of thousands of measurements each day using high-resolution spectrometers, with an anticipated precision of one part per million (ppm) of CO2, Edwards added.

The data will also identify the human and natural sources of CO2, as well as their "sinks" - the natural ocean and land that pull the gas out of the air and store it.

"Knowing what parts of Earth are helping remove carbon from our atmosphere will help us understand whether they will keep doing so in the future," Michael Gunson, OCO-2 project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a NASA news release.

CO2 levels on Earth are currently about 400 ppm - the highest they've been in at least 800,000 years, NASA officials said. Humanity's burning of fossil fuels and other activities can be blamed for much of this carbon pollution - we add nearly 40 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.

This is too much for Earth's sinks to handle alone, which remove around just 20 billion tons of CO2 annually.

"With the OCO-2 mission, NASA will be contributing an important new source of global observations to the scientific challenge of better understanding our Earth and its future," added Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division in Washington.

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