A new NASA remote sensing mission aims to revolutionize our understanding of the carbon cycle by measuring and mapping carbon gas output over the Americas. 

The Geostationary Carbon Observatory—or GeoCarb—is targeted for launch in the early 2020s and will monitor vegetation health and stress as a result of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. To lower mission costs, GeoCarb will launch on a commercial SES-Government Solutions communications satellite. Devices in geostationary orbit mimic the Earth’s rotation, meaning the satellite can hover over and repeatedly monitor a specific region.

GeoCarb’s advanced payload will build on that of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission, including identical detector technology, algorithms, and calibration techniques along with oxygen spectral bands and a grating spectrometer. However, GeoCarb will add a fourth spectral band to measure carbon monoxide and, for the first time in U.S. satellite history, methane. GeoCarb will also record solar-induced fluorescence (SIF), which indicates that plants are pulling carbon from the air and photosynthesis is occurring.

According to NASA, this payload will result in roughly 10 million daily recordings of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, and SIF at a spatial resolution of three to six miles. The collected data will illuminate how carbon flows between land, oceans, and the atmosphere as well as how carbon-based gasses are distributed by wind and weather patterns. Because of its geostationary placement, GeoCarb will fill information gaps left by polar orbiting satellites, resulting in a more complete picture of the carbon cycle.

In addition to informing climate science, this mission could also give a boost to the energy industry. Scientific American reports methane leaks cost the U.S. natural gas industry up to $10 billion each year. The article suggests GeoCarb’s collection of essential industry information (and its cost-efficient hosted payload method) is an effective way to please those in Congress who want to cut spending and maximize profits from the energy sector as well as those who want increased research toward improving environmental sustainability. If GeoCarb is successful, the hosted payload could serve as a model for future NASA partnerships with commercial satellite vendors and for international space programs to expand this research to other parts of the world.

Photo Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin/University of Oklahoma

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Posted by Andrew Foerch