NASA’s carbon observatory set for liftoff despite attempts to defund the project

An illustration of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 mounted on the underside of the International Space Station. Photo: NASA

Despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to cut funding for NASA’ s carbon dioxide tracking instrument OCO-3, the observatory is scheduled to make its way to the Internationa Space Station (ISS) this week. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explained that from its perch on the space station, OCO-3 will observe near-global measurements of carbon dioxide on land and sea, from just after sunrise to just before sunset. That makes it far more versatile and powerful than its predecessor, OCO-2. The LA Times reported that “Once the carbon observatory gets to the ISS, a robotic arm will mount it on the underside of the space station so it can keep a close eye on the carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. That will help scientists answer questions about how and why levels of the greenhouse gas fluctuate over days, months and years.

The OCO-3 will build on the research of the OCO-2 but from the vantage point of the ISS. Annmarie Eldering, the mission’s project scientist at JPL, explained in an interview with the LA Times that “carbon dioxide makes up a tiny fraction of the molecules in our atmosphere — roughly 400 parts per million. But seemingly small changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have an outsized effect on the planet’s temperature.”

Diane Evans who is  JPL’s director for Earth Science and Technology said that the combined observations from both OCO missions will provide more comprehensive information about the state of carbon on our planet. She explained in a statement that “They will add to the growing body of research from multiple Earth-observing missions. And combining these data with data sets from other instruments on the space station like ECOSTRESS and GEDI will make it possible to answer key questions about the interactions of the carbon and water cycles.”

Why This Matters: You can’t manage what you don’t measure and the OCO-3 will help scientists get an even better idea of how carbon dioxide moves throughout our planet but especially between plants and the atmosphere. Data on how plants uptake carbon can be used to predict how much carbon they will sequester in future scenarios such as El Niño and drought years. It’s important that we keep NASA research programs like this funded so that we can better understand our planet and how our activity is affecting it.

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