NASA Launches its First Carbon-Tracking Satellite

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA

It’s been a rough birthing process for NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite program, which promises global tracking of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the atmosphere at ground level. Five years ago the first OCO fell into the Antarctic Ocean and sank, trapped inside the nose cone of a Taurus XL launch vehicle that failed to separate during launch. The angst deepened yesterday when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scrubbed a first attempt to launch a twin of the lost $280-million satellite, OCO-2, after sensors spotted trouble with the launch pad’s water-flood vibration-damping system less than a minute before ignition.

But this morning OCO’s troubles became history. At 2:56 a.m. PDT a Delta II rocket carrying the OCO-2 satellite roared off the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. According to JPL, the OCO separated from the Delta II’s second stage 56 minutes later and settled into an initial 690-kilometer-high orbit. If all goes well it will maneuver into a final 705-km orbit over the next month, putting it at the head of an international multi-satellite constellation of Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train.

OCO-2’s contribution will be better intelligence on natural sources and sinks for CO2. “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, in a JPL statement released this morning.

OCO-2 will collect more than 100,000 measurements of CO2 concentrations per day beginning in early 2015. It will also monitor plant growth and health by tracking fluorescence given off by plants as they photosynthesize and take up carbon dioxide.

What OCO-2 is not expected to do is to pinpoint anthropogenic emissions of CO2 with sufficient accuracy to test nationally-reported inventories of the world’s leading greenhouse gas. Such double-checking from above is becoming possible for methane, another potent agent of climate change, and suggests that the inventories understate methane releases from sources such as oil and gas production. Methane tracking is expected to take a further leap forward with the European Space Agency’s €45 million (US $62 million) Tropospheric Ozone Monitoring Instrument (Tropomi), whose launch date recently slid from 2015 to early 2016.

Experts say that tracking CO2 with sufficient resolution and precision to check the inventories could still be five years away because CO2’s absorption signal is harder to isolate than methane’s from the signals of other gases. Missions in development to crack that nut for CO2 include France’s MICROCARB, the European Space Agency’s CARBONSAT, and China’s TanSat minisatellite.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Sniffing Gas: White House Taps ARPA-E to Boost Methane Detection

Gasbot 2.0. Photo: Victor Hernandez

Gasbot photo: Victor Hernandez

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum we spotlight the methane emissions overlooked by the U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, and the satellite-based detector launching next year to map this “missing methane.” Last week the White House acknowledged EPA’s missing methane problem, and laid out a strategy to combat it. While promising to improve EPA’s inventory, including more use of top-down methane measurement, the White House also promised federal investment in ground-based methane sensing to plug leaky natural gas systems thought to be the source of much of the missing methane.

Action can’t come soon enough according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which on Monday unveiled its latest report onClimate Change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. The IPCC said “widespread and consequential” impacts are already visible and world leaders have only a few years to change course to avoid catastrophic warning. Methane is a major contributor according to the scientific body’s update on the physical basis for climate change, released last fall, which deemed methane to be up to 44 percent more potent as a warming agent than previously recognized. Continue reading

Satellites and Simulations Track Missing Methane

In the April 2014 issue of IEEE Spectrum:

Methane emissions from oil and gas extraction, herding livestock, and other human activities in the United States are likely 25 to 75 percent higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently recognizes, according to ameta-analysis of methane emissions research published recently in Science. While experts in remote sensing debate the merits of this and other recent challenges to the EPA’s numbers, definitive answers are already on order via a high-precision Earth observation satellite to be launched next year.

The intensifying methane emissions debate has profound implications for climate and energy policy. Natural gas consumption is rising, and methane’s global warming impact is more than 30 times as much as that of carbon dioxide, molecule for molecule, and second only to carbon dioxide’s in today’s net climate impact …

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Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas

Heavy water use, threats of tainted groundwater, and artificial earthquakes are but a sampling of the environmental side effects that have tarnished North America’s recent boom in natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing or fracking. No surprise then that in European countries such as the U.K. that are looking to frack for cheap domestic gas, the environmental protesters often arrive ahead of the drill rigs.

But countries seeking fresh gas supplies could do far worse than fracking. So say Duke University researchers who, in today’s issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change, shine a jaundiced spotlight on China’s plans to synthesize natural gas from coal. Nine synthetic gas plants recently approved by Beijing would increase the annual demand for water in the country’s arid northern regions by over 180 million metric tons, the Duke team concluded, while emissions of carbon dioxide would entirely wipe out the climate-cooling impact of China’s massive wind and solar power installations. Continue reading

Rendering Greenhouse Gases Visible

Natural gas has no odor, but you can smell a leak thanks to the addition of an odorific mercaptam compound. Do carbon dioxide and other similarly odorless greenhouse gases (GHGs) require some analogous device to make their presence known and thus prompt evasive action? Yes, and for these ubiquitous gases, it will be a visual cue indicating the source and quantity of GHGs Continue reading

Applying ‘Trust, but verify’ to Climate Change Policy

Last year Swiss researchers demonstrated that European countries release more of the potent greenhouse gas trifluoromethane than they report. It was just the latest in a growing number of case studies showing that polluters and governments might be under-estimating their climate change impact, but it served to highlight the science and technology that can reveal such cheating Continue reading

How Canada Should Return Obama’s Oil Pipeline Punt

Late last week President Barack Obama deferred consideration of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to ship Alberta petroleum to the Gulf Coast, until after next year’s U.S. elections. Obama’s move immediately sparked vows in Canada to redirect crude exports to Asian markets less angst-ridden by the environmental impacts associated with tapping Alberta’s tough, tarry petroleum. A smarter strategy would be to reduce those impacts, starting with the black mark that brought Keystone XL to national attention: oil sands crude’s bloated carbon footprint. Continue reading