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NASA Successfully Launches Carbon-Sniffing OCO-2

Jul 02, 2014 04:30 PM EDT

As scheduled, NASA successfully launched its carbon-sniffing spacecraft named the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. EDT) on Tuesday.

The OCO-2 took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. Approximately 56 minutes after the launch, the observatory separated from the rocket into an initial 429-mile (690-kilometer) orbit and performed a series of activation procedures.

So far OCO-2 seems to be in excellent condition to complete its two-year mission, which is to locate Earth's sources and sinks for atmospheric carbon dioxide, the world's leading greenhouse gas, and major driver of climate change.

"Climate change is the challenge of our generation," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a news release. "With OCO-2 and our existing fleet of satellites, NASA is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society."

Carbon dioxide sinks are the places on Earth's surface where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere. Finding them will help scientists accurately predict how the levels of this greenhouse gas will change in the future and affect Earth's climate.

"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, Cali.

OCO-2 will take about 100,000 of the most detailed pictures of Earth's carbon sources to date based on the wavelengths of light the gas absorbs. Operations will begin 45 days after launch, and scientists expect to release their first initial estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in early 2015.

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