NASA’s Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas Observatory Captures ‘First Light’ at Head of International ‘A-Train’ of Earth Science Satellites

NASA’s first spacecraft dedicated to studying Earth’s atmospheric climate changing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and its carbon cycle has reached its final observing orbit and taken its first science measurements as the leader of the world’s first constellation of Earth science satellites known as the International “A-Train.”

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is a research satellite tasked with collecting the first global measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) – the leading human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change.

The ‘first light’ measurements were conducted on Aug. 6 as the observatory flew over central Papua New Guinea and confirmed the health of the science instrument. See graphic below.

NASA's OCO-2 spacecraft collected "first light” data Aug. 6 over New Guinea. OCO-2’s spectrometers recorded the bar code-like spectra, or chemical signatures, of molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The backdrop is a simulation of carbon dioxide created from GEOS-5 model data.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA GSFC
NASA’s OCO-2 spacecraft collected “first light” data Aug. 6 over New Guinea. OCO-2’s spectrometers recorded the bar code-like spectra, or chemical signatures, of molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The backdrop is a simulation of carbon dioxide created from GEOS-5 model data. Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA GSFC

Before the measurements could begin, mission controllers had to cool the observatory’s three-spectrometer instrument to its operating temperatures.

“The spectrometer’s optical components must be cooled to near 21 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 6 degrees Celsius) to bring them into focus and limit the amount of heat they radiate. The instrument’s detectors must be even cooler, near minus 243 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 153 degrees Celsius), to maximize their sensitivity,” according to a NASA statement.

The team still has to complete a significant amount of calibration work before the observatory is declared fully operational.

OCO-2 was launched
just over a month ago during a spectacular nighttime blastoff on July 2, 2014, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, atop a the venerable United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

OCO-2 arrived at its final 438-mile (705-kilometer) altitude, near-polar orbit on Aug. 3 at the head of the international A-Train following a series of propulsive burns during July. Engineers also performed a thorough checkout of all of OCO-2’s systems to ensure they were functioning properly.

“The initial data from OCO-2 appear exactly as expected — the spectral lines are well resolved, sharp and deep,” said OCO-2 chief architect and calibration lead Randy Pollock of JPL, in a statement.

“We still have a lot of work to do to go from having a working instrument to having a well-calibrated and scientifically useful instrument, but this was an important milestone on this journey.”

Artist's rendering of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, one of five new NASA Earth science missions set to launch in 2014, and one of three managed by JPL. Credit:  NASA-JPL/Caltech
Artist’s rendering of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, one of five new NASA Earth science missions set to launch in 2014, and one of three managed by JPL. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

OCO-2 now leads the A-Train constellation, comprising five other international Earth orbiting monitoring satellites that constitute the world’s first formation-flying “super observatory” that collects an unprecedented quantity of nearly simultaneous climate and weather measurements.

Scientists will use the huge quantities of data to record the health of Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment as never before possible.

OCO-2 is followed in orbit by the Japanese GCOM-W1 satellite, and then by NASA’s Aqua, CALIPSO, CloudSat and Aura spacecraft, respectively. All six satellites fly over the same point on Earth within 16 minutes of each other. OCO-2 currently crosses the equator at 1:36 p.m. local time.

OCO-2 poster. Credit: ULA/NASA
OCO-2 poster. Credit: ULA/NASA

The 999 pound (454 kilogram) observatory is the size of a phone booth.

OCO-2 is equipped with a single science instrument consisting of three high-resolution, near-infrared spectrometers fed by a common telescope. It will collect global measurements of atmospheric CO2 to provide scientists with a better idea of how CO2 impacts climate change and is responsible for Earth’s warming.

During a minimum two-year mission the $467.7 million OCO-2 will take near global measurements to locate the sources and storage places, or ‘sinks’, for atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is a critical component of the planet’s carbon cycle.

OCO-2 was built by Orbital Sciences as a replacement for the original OCO which was destroyed during the failed launch of a Taurus XL rocket from Vandenberg back in February 2009 when the payload fairing failed to open properly and the spacecraft plunged into the ocean.

The OCO-2 mission will provide a global picture of the human and natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their “sinks,” the natural ocean and land processes by which carbon dioxide is pulled out of Earth’s atmosphere and stored, according to NASA.

Here’s a NASA description of how OCO-2 collects measurements.

As OCO-2 flies over Earth’s sunlit hemisphere, each spectrometer collects a “frame” three times each second, for a total of about 9,000 frames from each orbit. Each frame is divided into eight spectra, or chemical signatures, that record the amount of molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide over adjacent ground footprints. Each footprint is about 1.3 miles (2.25 kilometers) long and a few hundred yards (meters) wide. When displayed as an image, the eight spectra appear like bar codes — bright bands of light broken by sharp dark lines. The dark lines indicate absorption by molecular oxygen or carbon dioxide.

It will record around 100,000 precise individual CO2 measurements around the worlds entire sunlit hemisphere every day and help determine its source and fate in an effort to understand how human activities impact climate change and how we can mitigate its effects.

OCO-2 mission  description. Credit: NASA
OCO-2 mission description. Credit: NASA

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there were about 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. As of today the CO2 level has risen to about 400 parts per million, which is the most in at least 800,000 years, says NASA.

OCO-2 is the second of NASA’s five new Earth science missions planned to launch in 2014 and is designed to operate for at least two years during its primary mission. It follows the successful blastoff of the joint NASA/JAXA Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory satellite on Feb 27.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, NASA's first mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Time, July 2, 2014 on a Delta II rocket.  The two-year mission will help scientists unravel key mysteries about carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Time, July 2, 2014 on a Delta II rocket. The two-year mission will help scientists unravel key mysteries about carbon dioxide. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Space Station to Get a ‘Laser Cannon’

What’s a space station without a laser cannon?

The International Space Station will be getting its very own laser at the end of 2014. And unlike the planet-smashing capabilities of the Death Star of Star Wars fame, this laser will to be enlisted for the purpose of science.

It’s called CATS, and no, it isn’t the latest attempt to put feline astronauts in space. CATS stands for the Cloud Aerosol Transport System. The goal of CATS is to study the distribution of tiny particles of dust and air contaminants known as aerosols.

Developed by research scientist Matt McGill at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland, CATS is slated to head to the International Space Station later this year on September 12th aboard SpaceX’s CRS-5 flight of the Dragon spacecraft. CATS will be installed on the Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility (JEM-EF) and will demonstrate the utility of state-of-the-art multi-wavelength laser technology to study aerosol distribution and transport in the atmosphere.

Such knowledge is critical in understanding the path and circulation of aerosols and pollutants worldwide. When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland back in 2010, many trans-Atlantic flights were grounded as a precaution. These measures are necessary as several flights have suffered engine failures in the past due to encounters with volcanic ash clouds, such as the four engine failure of KLM Fight 867 in 1989 and the British Airways Flight 9 incident over Southeast Asia in 1982. Knowing where these dangerous ash clouds are is crucial to the safety of air travel.

The expanding ash cloud spewing from Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano as seen from space in 2010. Credit: NASA.
The expanding ash cloud spewing from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano as seen from space in 2010. Credit: NASA.

To accomplish this, CATS will emit 5,000 1 milliJoule laser pulses a second at the 1064, 532 and 355 nanometer wavelengths.  This represents a vast improvement in power requirements and thermal capabilities over a similar instrument currently in service aboard the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations (CALIPSO) Earth remote sensing spacecraft.

And it’s that third 355 nanometer wavelength that will make CATS stand out from CALIPSO. This will also allow researchers to differentiate between particle size and measure the horizontal and vertical distribution of aerosol particles in the atmosphere. CATS will also be capable of measuring the number of individual photons being reflected back at it, which will provide a much better resolution and understanding of current atmospheric activity.

“You get better data quality because you make fewer assumptions, and you get, presumably, a more accurate determination of what kind of particles you’re seeing in the atmosphere,” McGill said in a recent press release.

The International Space Station also provides a unique vantage point for CATS. In a highly inclined 51.7 degree orbit, the station passes over a good swath of the planet on 16 orbits daily on a westward moving ground track that repeats roughly every three days. This will assure CATS has coverage over a large percentage of the planet, including known pollutant transport routes across the northern Pacific and down from Canada over the U.S. Great Lakes region.

While the first two lasers will operate in the infrared and visual wavelengths, said third laser will work in the ultraviolet. And while this will give CATS an enhanced capability, engineers also worry that it may also be susceptible to contamination.  “If you get contamination on any of your outgoing optics, they can self-destruct, and then your system is dead. You end up with a very limited instrument lifetime,” McGill said.

Still, if CATS is successful, it may pave the way for larger, free-flying versions that will monitor long-range atmospheric patterns and shifts in climate due to natural and man-made activity. And the ISS makes a good platform to test pathfinder missions like CATS at low cost. “In our current budget-constrained environment, we need to use what we already have, such as the [station], to do more with less,” McGill said.

CALIPSO's LiDAR imaged from the ground by Gregg Hendry in 2008. Used with permission.
CALIPSO’s LiDAR imaged from the ground by Gregg Hendry in 2008. Used with permission.

The advent of a LiDAR system aboard the ISS has also generated a spirited discussion in the satellite tracking community concerning prospects for spotting CATS in operation from the ground. The CALIPSO LiDAR has been captured by ground spotters in the past. However, CALIPSO fires a much more powerful 110 milliJoule pulse at a rate of 20 times a second. Still, the lower power CATS system will be firing at a much faster rate, delivering a cumulative 5,000 milliJoules a second.  CATS won’t be bright enough to show up on an illuminated pass of the ISS, but it just might be visible during darkened passes of the ISS through the Earth’s shadow. And, unlike CALLIPSO — which is part of the difficult to observe A-Train of Earth-observing satellites — the ISS passes in view of a majority of humanity. At very least, activity from CATS will be worth watching out for, and may well be seen either visually or photographically.

We’ll soon be adding CATS to the long list of outstanding science experiments being conducted aboard the International Space Station, and the sight of this “fully armed and operational battle station” may soon be coming to a dark sky site near you!