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NASA launches satellite to study carbon pollution in the atmosphere

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The satellite will measure the gas concentration
  • It will provide a much fuller picture

(CNN) -- NASA launched a satellite to study climate change on Wednesday, shooting the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) into space.

The liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Station, California, was originally scheduled for Tuesday but was scrubbed because of a water flow issue in the launch pad.

With OCO-2, NASA is attempting to achieve a "vantage point" from space to study atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent of the human-produced greenhouse gases impacting the Earth. Its annual production approaches 40 billion tons.

The use of fossil fuels, which generates carbon dioxide, has been increasing exponentially.

While part of the gas is absorbed by the Earth, many scientists, such as geologist Gregg Marland of Appalachian State University, maintain that humans have "tipped the balance."

The NASA mission is interested in the dynamics of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere -- not only the points of its emanation, but also the places where it is absorbed.

An adequate understanding of both the "sources" and "sinks" is needed to create measures that could control the balance.

Here's how it would work, according to Marland: "If you visualize a column of air that stretches from Earth's surface to the top of the atmosphere, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 will identify how much of that vertical column is carbon dioxide.

"It will act like a plane observing the smoke from forest fires down below, with the task of assessing where the fires are and how big they are."

The satellite will provide a full picture in comparison to what we have now, which Marland describes as "cobbling together data."

The OCO-2 will conduct its study by analyzing the wavelengths of sunlight absorbed by the gas.

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