Carl Sagan’s Theory Of Early Mars Warming Gets New Attention

Ah, the good old days. ESA’s Mars Express imaged Reull Vallis, a river-like structure believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant Martian past, cuts a steep-sided channel on its way towards the floor of the Hellas basin. A thicker atmosphere that included methane and hydrogen in addition to carbon dioxide may have allowed liquid water to flow on Mars at different times in the past according to a new study. Credit and copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

Water. It’s always about the water when it comes to sizing up a planet’s potential to support life. Mars may possess some liquid water in the form of occasional salty flows down crater walls,  but most appears to be locked up in polar ice or hidden deep underground. Set a cup of the stuff out on a sunny Martian day today and depending on conditions, it could quickly freeze or simply bubble away to vapor in the planet’s ultra-thin atmosphere.

These rounded pebbles got their shapes after polished in a long-ago river in Gale Crater. They were discovered by Curiosity rover at the Hottah site. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Evidence of abundant liquid water in former flooded plains and sinuous river beds can be found nearly everywhere on Mars. NASA’s Curiosity rover has found mineral deposits that only form in liquid water and pebbles rounded by an ancient stream that once burbled across the floor of Gale Crater. And therein lies the paradox.  Water appears to have gushed willy-nilly across the Red Planet 3 to 4 billion years ago, so what’s up today?

Blame Mars’ wimpy atmosphere. Thicker, juicier air and the increase in atmospheric pressure that comes with it would keep the water in that cup stable. A thicker atmosphere would also seal in the heat, helping to keep the planet warm enough for liquid water to pool and flow.

Different ideas have been proposed to explain the putative thinning of the air including the loss of the planet’s magnetic field, which serves as a defense against the solar wind.

This figure shows a cross-section of the planet Mars revealing an inner, high density core buried deep within the interior. Magnetic field lines are drawn in blue, showing the global scale magnetic field associated with a dynamic core. Mars must have had such a field long ago, but today it’s not evident. Perhaps the energy source that powered the early dynamo shut down. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

Convection currents within its molten nickel-iron core likely generated Mars’ original magnetic defenses. But sometime early in the planet’s history the currents stopped either because the core cooled or was disrupted by asteroid impacts. Without a churning core, the magnetic field withered, allowing the solar wind to strip away the atmosphere, molecule by molecule.


Solar wind eats away the Martian atmosphere

Measurements from NASA’s current MAVEN mission indicate that the solar wind strips away gas at a rate of about 100 grams (equivalent to roughly 1/4 pound) every second. “Like the theft of a few coins from a cash register every day, the loss becomes significant over time,” said Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN principal investigator.

This graph shows the percent amount of the five most abundant gases in the atmosphere of Mars, as measured by the  Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on the Curiosity rover in October 2012. The season was early spring in Mars’ southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, SAM/GSFC

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) suggest a different, less cut-and-dried scenario. Based on their studies, early Mars may have been warmed now and again by a powerful greenhouse effect. In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers found that interactions between methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the early Martian atmosphere may have created warm periods when the planet could support liquid water on its surface.

The team first considered the effects of CO2, an obvious choice since it comprises 95% of Mars’ present day atmosphere and famously traps heat. But when you take into account that the Sun shone 30% fainter 4 billion years ago compared to today, CO2  alone couldn’t cut it.

“You can do climate calculations where you add CO2 and build up to hundreds of times the present day atmospheric pressure on Mars, and you still never get to temperatures that are even close to the melting point,” said Robin Wordsworth, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at SEAS, and first author of the paper.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft looks toward the night side of Saturn’s largest moon and sees sunlight scattering through the periphery of Titan’s atmosphere and forming a ring of color. The breakdown of methane at Titan into hydrogen and oxygen may also have occurred on Mars. The addition of hydrogen in the company of methane and carbon dioxide would have created a powerful greenhouse gas mixture, significantly warming the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only gas capable of preventing heat from escaping into space. Methane or CH4 will do the job, too. Billions of years ago, when the planet was more geologically active, volcanoes could have tapped into deep sources of methane and released bursts of the gas into the Martian atmosphere. Similar to what happens on Saturn’s moon Titan, solar ultraviolet light would snap the molecule in two, liberating hydrogen gas in the process.

When Wordsworth and his team looked at what happens when methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide collide and then interact with sunlight, they discovered that the combination strongly absorbed heat.

Carl Sagan, American astronomer and astronomy popularizer, first speculated that hydrogen warming could have been important on early Mars back in 1977, but this is the first time scientists have been able to calculate its greenhouse effect accurately. It is also the first time that methane has been shown to be an effective greenhouse gas on early Mars.

This awesome image of the Tharsis region of Mars taken by Mars Express shows several prominent shield volcanoes including the massive Olympus Mons (at left). Volcanoes, when they were active, could have released significant amounts of methane into Mars’ atmosphere. Click for a larger version. Credit: ESA

When you take methane into consideration, Mars may have had episodes of warmth based on geological activity associated with earthquakes and volcanoes. There have been at least three volcanic epochs during the planet’s history — 3.5 billion years ago (evidenced by lunar mare-like plains), 3 billion years ago (smaller shield volcanoes) and 1 to 2 billion years ago, when giant shield volcanoes such as Olympus Mons were active. So we have three potential methane bursts that could rejigger the atmosphere to allow for a mellower Mars.

The sheer size of Olympus Mons practically shouts massive eruptions over a long period of time. During the in-between times, hydrogen, a lightweight gas, would have continued to escape into space until replenished by the next geological upheaval.

“This research shows that the warming effects of both methane and hydrogen have been underestimated by a significant amount,” said Wordsworth. “We discovered that methane and hydrogen, and their interaction with carbon dioxide, were much better at warming early Mars than had previously been believed.”

I’m tickled that Carl Sagan walked this road 40 years ago. He always held out hope for life on Mars. Several months before he died in 1996, he recorded this:

” … maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process, we come after all, from hunter gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And, the next place to wander to, is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.”

How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?

Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.

As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?”

What Causes Air Pollution?

By definition, pollution refers to any matter that is “out of place”. In other words, it is what happens when toxins, contaminants, and other harmful products are introduced into an environment, disrupting its normal patterns and functions. When it comes to our atmosphere, pollution refers to the introduction of chemicals, particulates, and biological matter that can be harmful to humans, plants and animals, and cause damage to the natural environment.

Whereas some causes of pollution are entirely natural – being the result of sudden changes in temperature, seasonal changes, or regular cycles – others are the result of human impact (i.e. anthropogenic, or man-made). More and more, the effects of air pollution on our planet, especially those that result from human activity, are of great concern to developers, planners and environmental organizations, given the long-term effect they can have.

Continue reading “What Causes Air Pollution?”

13 MORE Things That Saved Apollo 13, part 5: The CO2 Partial Pressure Sensor

The Apollo 13 accident crippled the spacecraft, taking out the two main oxygen tanks in the Service Module. While the lack of oxygen caused a lack of power from the fuel cells in the Command Module, having enough oxygen to breathe in the lander rescue craft really wasn’t an issue for the crew. But having too much carbon dioxide (CO2) quickly did become a problem.

The Lunar Module, which was being used as a lifeboat for the crew, had lithium hydroxide canisters to remove the CO2 for two men for two days, but on board were three men trying to survive in the LM lifeboat for four days. After a day and a half in the LM, CO2 levels began to threaten the astronauts’ lives, ringing alarms. The CO2 came from the astronauts’ own exhalations.

Jerry Woodfill working in the Apollo Mission Evaluation Room.  Credit:  Jerry Woodfill.
Jerry Woodfill working in the Apollo Mission Evaluation Room. Credit: Jerry Woodfill.

NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill helped design and monitor the Apollo caution and warning systems. One of the systems which the lander’s warning system monitored was environmental control.

Like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide can be a ‘silent killer’ – it can’t be detected by the human senses, and it can overcome a person quickly. Early on in their work in assessing the warning system for the environmental control system, Woodfill and his co-workers realized the importance of a CO2 sensor.

“The presence of that potentially lethal gas can only be detected by one thing – an instrumentation transducer,” Woodfill told Universe Today. “I had an unsettling thought, ‘If it doesn’t work, no one would be aware that the crew is suffocating on their own breath.’”

The sensor’s job was simply to convert the content of carbon dioxide into an electrical voltage, a signal transmitted to all, both the ground controllers, and the cabin gauge.

Location of Caution And Warning System lights in the Command Module. Credit: Project Apollo - NASSP.
Location of Caution And Warning System lights in the Command Module. Credit: Project Apollo – NASSP.

“My system had two categories of alarms, one, a yellow light for caution when the astronaut could invoke a backup plan to avoid a catastrophic event, and the other, an amber warning indication of imminent life-threatening failure,” Woodfill explained. “Because onboard CO2 content rises slowly, the alarm system simply served to advise and caution the crew to change filters. We’d set the threshold or “trip-level” of the alarm system electronics to do so.”

And soon after the explosion of Apollo 13’s oxygen tank, the assessment of life-support systems determined the system for removing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the lunar module was not doing so. Systems in both the Command and Lunar Modules used canisters filled with lithium hydroxide to absorb CO2. Unfortunately the plentiful canisters in the crippled Command Module could not be used in the LM, which had been designed for two men for two days, but on board were three men trying to survive in the LM lifeboat for four days: the CM had square canisters while the LM had round ones.

The fix for the lithium hydroxide canister is discussed at NASA Mission Control prior to having the astronauts implement the procedure in space. Credit: NASA
The fix for the lithium hydroxide canister is discussed at NASA Mission Control prior to having the astronauts implement the procedure in space. Credit: NASA

As was detailed so well by Jim Lovell in his book “Lost Moon,” and subsequently portrayed in detail in the movie “Apollo 13,” a group of engineers led by Ed Smylie, who developed and tested life support systems for NASA, constructed a duct-taped-jury-rigged CO2 filter, using only what was aboard the spacecraft to convert the plentiful square filters to work in the round LM system. (You can read the details of the system and its development in our previous “13 Things” series.)

Needless to say, the story had a happy ending. The Apollo 13 accident review board reported that Mission Control gave the crew further instructions for attaching additional cartridges when needed, and the carbon dioxide partial pressure remained below 2mm Hg for the remainder of the Earth-return trip.

But the story of Jerry Woodfill and the CO2 sensor can also serve as an inspiration to anyone who feels disappointed in their career, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, feeling that perhaps what you are doing doesn’t really matter.

“I think almost everyone who came to NASA wanted to be an astronaut or a flight director, and I always felt my career was diminished by the fact that I wasn’t a flight controller or astronaut or even a guidance and navigation engineer,” Woodfill said. “I was what was called an instrumentation engineer. Others had said this is the kind of job that was superfluous.”

Woodfill worked on the spacecraft metal panels which housed the switches and gauges. “Likely, a mechanical engineer might not find such a job exciting,” he said, “and to think, I had once studied field theory, quantum electronics and other heady disciplines as a Rice electrical engineering candidate.”

NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill with Chris Kraft, former NASA flight director and manager, in early 2015. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.
NASA engineer Jerry Woodfill with Chris Kraft, former NASA flight director and manager, in early 2015. Image courtesy Jerry Woodfill.

Later, to add to the discouragement was a conversation with another engineer. “His comment was, ‘No one wants to be an instrumentation engineer,” Woodfill recalled, “thinking it is a dead-end assignment, best avoided if one wants to be promoted. It seemed that instrumentation was looked upon as a sort of ‘menial servant’ whose lowly job was servicing end users such as radar, communications, electrical power even guidance computers. In fact, the users could just as readily incorporate instrumentation in their devices. Then, there would be no need for an autonomous group of instrumentation guys.”

But after some changes in management and workforce, Woodfill became the lead Command Module Caution and Warning Project Engineer, as well as the Lunar Lander Caution and Warning lead – a job he thought no one else really wanted.

But he took on the job with gusto.

“I visited with a dozen or more managers of items which the warning system monitored for failure,” Woodfill said. He convened a NASA-Grumman team to consider how best to warn of CO2 and other threats. “We needed to determine at what threshold level should the warning system ring an alarm. All the components must work, starting with the CO2 sensor. The signal must pass from there through the transmitting electronics, wiring, ultimately reaching my warning system “brain” known as the Caution and Warning Electronics Assembly (CWEA).”

And so, just hours after the explosion on Apollo 13, the Mission Engineering Manager summoned Woodfill to his office.

“He wanted to discuss my warning system ringing carbon dioxide alarms,” Woodfill said. “I explained the story, placing before him the calibration curves of the CO2 Partial Pressure Transducer, showing him what this instrumentation device is telling us about the threat to the crew.”

Now, what Woodfill had once had deemed trivial was altogether essential for saving the lives of an Apollo 13 astronaut crew. Yes, instrumentation was just as important as any advanced system aboard the command ship or the lunar lander.

“And, I thought, without it, likely, no one would have known the crew was in grave danger,” said Woodfill, “let alone how to save them. Instrumentation engineering wasn’t a bad career choice after all!”

The Apollo 13 fix -- complete with duct tape -- of making a square canister fit into a round hole.  Credit: NASA
The Apollo 13 fix — complete with duct tape — of making a square canister fit into a round hole. Credit: NASA
This is an example of the team effort that saved Apollo 13: that the person who was working on the transducer years prior was just as significant as the person who came up with the ingenious duct tape solution.

And it was one of the additional things that saved Apollo 13.

Apollo 13 images via NASA. Montage by Judy Schmidt.
Apollo 13 images via NASA. Montage by Judy Schmidt.

Additional articles in this series:

Introduction

Part 1: The Failed Oxygen Quantity Sensor

Part 2: Simultaneous Presence of Kranz and Lunney at the Onset of the Rescue

Part 3: Detuning the Saturn V’s 3rd Stage Radio

Part 4: Early Entry into the Lander

Part 5: The CO2 Partial Pressure Sensor

Part 6: The Mysterious Longer-Than-Expected Communications Blackout

Part 7: Isolating the Surge Tank

Part 8: The Indestructible S-Band/Hi-Gain Antenna

Part 9: Avoiding Gimbal Lock

Part 10: ‘MacGyvering’ with Everyday Items

Part 11: The Caution and Warning System

Part 12: The Trench Band of Brothers

Find all the original “13 Things That Saved Apollo 13″ (published in 2010) at this link.

Why Is Venus So Horrible?

Venus really sucks. It’s as hot as an oven with a dense, poisonous atmosphere. But how did it get that way?

Venus sucks. Seriously, it’s the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you dead in moments.

Let’s push Venus into the Sun and be done with that terrible place. Its proximity is lowering our real estate values and who knows what sort of interstellar monstrosities are going to set up shop there, and be constantly knocking on our door to borrow the mower, or a cup or sugar, or sneak into our yard at night and eat all our dolphins.

You might argue that Venus is worth saving because it’s located within the Solar System’s habitable zone, that special place where water could exist in a liquid state on the surface. But we’re pretty sure it doesn’t have any liquid water. Venus may have been better in the past, clearly it started hanging out with wrong crowd, taking a bad turn down a dark road leading it to its current state of disrepair.

Could Venus have been better in the past? And how did it go so wrong? In many ways, Venus is a twin of the Earth. It’s almost the same size and mass as the Earth, and it’s made up of roughly the same elements. And if you stood on the surface of Venus, in the brief moments before you evacuated your bowels and died horribly, you’d notice the gravity feels pretty similar.

In the ancient past, the Sun was dimmer and cooler than it is now. Cool enough that Venus was much more similar to Earth with rivers, lakes and oceans. NASA’s Pioneer spacecraft probed beneath the planet’s thick clouds and revealed that there was once liquid water on the surface of Venus. And with liquid water, there could have been life on the surface and in those oceans.

Here’s where Venus went wrong. It’s about a third closer to the Sun than Earth, and gets roughly double the solar radiation. The Sun has been slowly heating up over the millions and billions of years. At some point, the planet reached a tipping point, where the water on the surface of Venus completely evaporated into the atmosphere.

False color radar topographical map of Venus provided by Magellan. Credit: Magellan Team/JPL/NASA
False color radar topographical map of Venus provided by Magellan. Credit: Magellan Team/JPL/NASA

Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, and this only increased the global temperature, creating a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus. The ultraviolet light from the Sun split apart the water vapor into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen was light enough to escape the atmosphere of Venus into space, while the oxygen recombined with carbon to form the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere we see today. Without that hydrogen, Venus’ water is never coming back.

Are you worried about our changing climate doing that here? Don’t panic. The amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere of Venus is incomprehensible. According to the IPCC, the folks studying global warming, human activities have no chance of unleashing runaway global warming. We’ll just have the regular old, really awful global warming. So, it’s okay to panic a bit, but do it in the productive way that results in your driving your car less.

The Sun is still slowly heating up. And in a billion years or so, temperatures here will get hot enough to boil the oceans away. And then, Earth and Venus will be twins again and then we can push them both into the Sun.

I know, I said the words “climate change”. Feel free to have an argument in the comments below, but play nice and bring science.

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

NASA’s Carbon Observatory Blasts off on Workhorse Delta II to Measure Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas and Watch Earth Breathe

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
Story updated[/caption]

Following a nearly three-year long hiatus, the workhorse Delta II rocket successfully launched NASA’s first spacecraft dedicated to watching Earth breathe by studying Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) – the leading human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) raced to orbit earlier this morning, during a spectacular nighttime blastoff at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. EDT), Tuesday, July 2, 2014, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

The flawless launch marked the ‘return to flight’ of the venerable Delta II and was broadcast live on NASA TV.

Blastoff of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Time, July 2, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/America/Space
Blastoff of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Time, July 2, 2014. Credit: Robert Fisher/America/Space

A camera mounted on the Delta II’s second stage captured a breathtaking live view of the OCO-2 spacecraft during separation from the upper stage, which propelled it into an initial 429-mile (690-kilometer) orbit.

The life giving solar arrays were unfurled soon thereafter and NASA reports that the observatory is in excellent health.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement.

“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.”

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, inside the payload fairing in the mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The fairing will protect OCO-2 during launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, scheduled for 5:56 a.m. EDT on July 1. OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate.   Credit: NASA/30th Space Wing USAF
NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, inside the payload fairing in the mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The fairing will protect OCO-2 during launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, which occurred at 5:56 a.m. EDT on July 2. OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate. Credit: NASA/30th Space Wing USAF

Over the next three weeks the OCO-2 probe will undergo a thorough checkout and calibration process. It will also be maneuvered into a 438-mile (705-kilometer) altitude, near-polar orbit where it will become the lead science probe at the head of the international Afternoon Constellation, or “A-Train,” of Earth-observing satellites.

“The A-Train, the first multi-satellite, formation flying “super observatory” to record the health of Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment, collects an unprecedented quantity of nearly simultaneous climate and weather measurements,” says NASA.

Science operations begin in about 45 days.

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 spec¬trometers 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.

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

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.

“This challenging mission is both timely and important,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

“OCO-2 will produce exquisitely precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations near Earth’s surface, laying the foundation for informed policy decisions on how to adapt to and reduce future climate change.”

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.

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.

“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, California, in a statement.

“Because of this, we cannot predict precisely how these processes will operate in the future as climate changes. For society to better manage carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure the natural source and sink processes.”

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.

Prelaunch view of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 and United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket unveiled at  Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: Robert Fisher/America/Space
Prelaunch view of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 and United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket unveiled at Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Credit: Robert Fisher/America/Space

The two stage Delta II 7320-10 launch vehicle is 8 ft in diameter and approximately 128 ft tall and was equipped with a trio of first stage strap on solid rocket motors. This marked the 152nd Delta II launch overall and the 51st for NASA since 1989.

The last time a Delta II rocket flew was nearly three years ago in October 2011 from Vandenberg for the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (NPP) weather satellite.

The final Delta II launch from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 10, 2011 boosted NASA’s twin GRAIL gravity mapping probes to the Moon.

The next Delta II launch later this year from Vandenberg involves NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission and counts as another of NASA’s five Earth science missions launching in 2014.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA Set to Launch OCO-2 Observatory on July 1 – Sniffer of Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) at the Launch Pad
This black-and-white infrared view shows the launch gantry, surrounding the United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite onboard. The photo was taken at Space Launch Complex 2, Friday, June 27, 2014, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. OCO-2 is set for a July 1, 2014 launch. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls[/caption]

After a lengthy hiatus, the workhorse Delta II rocket that first launched a quarter of a century ago and placed numerous renowned NASA science missions into Earth orbit and interplanetary space, as well as lofting dozens of commercial and DOD missions, is about to soar again this week on July 1 with NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) sniffer to study atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change.

The 999 pound (454 kilogram) observatory is equipped with one 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.

OCO-2's Delta II Rocket, First Stage  At Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the mobile service tower rolls away from the launch stand supporting the first stage of the Delta II rocket for NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission. Three solid rocket motors (white) have been attached to the first stage. The photo was taken during operations to mate the rocket's first and second stages. Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin
OCO-2’s Delta II Rocket, First Stage At Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the mobile service tower rolls away from the launch stand supporting the first stage of the Delta II rocket for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 mission. Three solid rocket motors (white) have been attached to the first stage. The photo was taken during operations to mate the rocket’s first and second stages. Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin

The $467.7 million OCO-2 mission is set to blastoff atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket on Tuesday, July 1 from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Liftoff is slated for 5:56 a.m. EDT (2:56 a.m. PDT) at the opening of a short 30-second launch window.

NASA TV will broadcast the launch live with countdown commentary beginning at 3:45 a.m. EDT (12:45 a.m. PDT): http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/

The California weather prognosis is currently outstanding at 100 percent ‘GO’ for favorable weather conditions at launch time.

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

The two stage Delta II 7320-10 launch vehicle is 8 ft in diameter and approximately 128 ft tall. It is equipped with a trio of strap on solid rocket motors. This marks the 152nd Delta II launch overall and the 51st for NASA since 1989.

The last time a Delta II rocket flew was nearly three years ago in October 2011 from Vandenberg for the Suomi National Polar-Orbiting Partnership (NPP) weather satellite.

The final Delta II launch from Cape Canaveral on Sept. 10, 2011 boosted NASA’s twin GRAIL gravity mapping probes to the Moon.

The Delta II will boost OCO-2 into a 438-mile (705-kilometer) altitude, near-polar orbit. Spacecraft separation from the rocket occurs 56 minutes 15 seconds after launch.

It will lead a constellation of five other international Earth monitoring satellites that circle Earth.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, inside the payload fairing in the mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The fairing will protect OCO-2 during launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, scheduled for 5:56 a.m. EDT on July 1. OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate.   Credit: NASA/30th Space Wing USAF
NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, inside the payload fairing in the mobile service tower at Space Launch Complex 2 on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The fairing will protect OCO-2 during launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, scheduled for 5:56 a.m. EDT on July 1. OCO-2 is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving changes in Earth’s climate. Credit: NASA/30th Space Wing USAF

The phone-booth sized OCO-2 was built by Orbital Sciences and is 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.

OCO-2 is the second of NASA’s five new Earth science missions launching 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.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (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..

“Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere plays a critical role in our planet’s energy balance and is a key factor in understanding how our climate is changing,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division in Washington.

“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.”

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

It will record around 100,000 CO2 measurements around the world 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.

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.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing OCO-2, GPM, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10 from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Blastoff of twin GRAIL A and B lunar gravity mapping spacecraft on a Delta II Heavy rocket on Sept. 10, 2011, from Pad 17B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:08 a.m. EDT. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Young Magnetic Star Possesses Precise Carbon Dioxide Ring

[/caption]

Catching a ring – or accretion disk – around a star isn’t unusual. However, catching a sharply defined carbon-dioxide ring around a young, magnetic star that’s precisely 1 AU away with a width 0.32 AU or less might raise a few eyebrows. This isn’t just any disk, either… It’s been likened as a “rope-like structure” and there’s even more to the mystery. It’s encircling a Herbig Ae star.

Discovered with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, the edges of this accretion disk are uniquely crisp. Located in the constellation of Centaurus at about 700 light years distant, V1052 (HD 101412) is a parent star with an infrared excess. “HD 101412 is most unusual in having resolved, magnetically split spectral lines which reveal a surface field modulus that varies between 2.5 to 3.5 kG.” says C.R. Cowley (et al). Previous studies “have surveyed molecular emission in a variety of young stellar objects. They found the emission to be much more subdued in Herbig Ae/Be stars than their cooler congeners, the T Tauri stars. This was true for HD 101412 as well, which was among the 25 Herbig Ae/Be stars they discussed. One exception, however, was the molecule CO2, which had a very large flux in HD 101412; indeed, only one T Tauri star had a higher CO2 flux.”

It’s not unusual for carbon dioxide to be found near young stars, but it is a bit more normal for it to be distributed throughout the disk region. “It’s exciting because this is the most constrained ring we’ve ever seen, and it requires an explanation,” explains Cowley, who is professor emeritus at the University of Michigan and leader of the international research effort. “At present time, we just don’t understand what makes it a rope rather than a dish.”

Because V1052 itself is different could be the reason. It is hypothesized the magnetic fields may be holding the rings in the disk structure at a certain distance. The idea has also been forwarded that there may be “shepherding planets”, much like Saturn’s ring structure, which may be the cause. “What makes this star so special is its very strong magnetic field and the fact that it rotates extremely slow compared to other stars of the same type,” said Swetlana Hubrig, of the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP), Germany.

One thing that is certain is how clean and well-defined the disk lines are centered around the Earth/Sun distance. This accords well with computer modeling where “A wider disk will not fit the observations.” These observations – and the exotic parent star – have been under intense scrutiny since 2008 and the findings have been recently published on-line in Astronomy and Astrophysics. It’s work that helps deepen the understanding of the interaction between central stars, their magnetic fields, and planet-forming disks. It also allows for fact finding when it comes to diverse systems and better knowledge of how solar systems form… even unusual ones.

“Why do turbulent motions not tear the ring apart?” Cowley wondered. “How permanent is the structure? What forces might act to preserve it for times comparable to the stellar formation time itself?”

When it comes to Herbig Ae stars, they are not only rare, but present a rare opportunity for study. In this case, it gives the team something to be quite excited about.

“This star is a gift of nature,” Hubrig said

Original Story Source: Leibniz Institute for Astrophysic News Release. For Further Reading: The narrow, inner CO ring around the magnetic Herbig Ae star, HD 101412.

Mars’ Underground Atmosphere

[/caption]

Scientists have spotted an underground reservoir near Mars’ south pole the size of Lake Superior… except that this lake is filled with frozen carbon dioxide – a.k.a. “dry ice”!

A recent report by scientists at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO reveals variations in Mars’ axial tilt can change how much carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere, affecting factors from the stability of water on its surface to the power and frequency of dust storms.

Thickness Map of Buried CO2 Ice Deposit
Thickness Map of Buried CO2 Ice Deposit

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s ground-penetrating Shallow Radar identified a subsurface deposit of frozen material, confirmed as carbon dioxide ice by its radar signature and visual correlation to the surface pitting seen above. As the polar surface warms during the Martian spring, underground CO2 deposits evaporate (or “sublime”) leaving behind round depressions in the frozen ground. (This has been aptly dubbed “swiss cheese terrain” by researchers on the HiRISE imaging team.)

While scientists were aware of seasonal CO2 ice layers atop the water ice this new discovery brings to light nearly 30 times more frozen CO2 than was previously believed to exist. In fact this particular deposit alone contains 80% the amount of CO2 currently present in the planet’s entire atmosphere.

The importance of this finding is how the carbon dioxide ultimately affects the global Martian climate as it freezes and thaws. When the CO2 is frozen and locked away in subsurface deposits like this, it’s not free to enter the atmosphere and do what CO2 does best: warm the planet… as well as increase atmospheric pressure. This means that liquid water cannot last as readily on the surface since it will either freeze or boil away. Also with less air pressure the strength of wind is decreased, so dust storms are less frequent and less severe.

When factored in with the axial tilt difference – and thus variations in the amount of sunlight hitting the poles – researchers’ models show that Mars’ average atmospheric pressure may at times be 75% higher than it is today.

These shifts in the orientation of the Red Planet’s axis occur on 100,000-year intervals… long by human standards but geologically very frequent. Mars may have had liquid water existing on its surface fairly recently!

Mars' south polar ice cap, seen in April 2000 by Mars Odyssey. NASA/JPL/MSSS

Although this may sound that Mars has had its own share of global warming due to CO2 emissions in its history, it must be remembered that Mars and Earth have very different atmospheric compositions. Earth’s atmosphere is much thicker and denser than Mars’, so even when doubling its CO2 content Mars’ atmosphere is still too thin and dry to create a strong greenhouse effect… especially considering that the polar caps on Mars increase cooling more than additional CO2 in the atmosphere raises global temperature. Without oceans and atmosphere to collect and distribute heat, the effect of any warming quickly radiates out into space…and eventually the planet swings back into a freeze-dried state.

“Unlike Earth, which has a thick, moist atmosphere that produces a strong greenhouse effect, Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and dry to produce as strong a greenhouse effect as Earth’s, even when you double its carbon-dioxide content.”

– Robert Haberle, planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center

Read the full news release on the NASA Missions site.

Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona