We hear a lot about humanity's "carbon footprint" in the news. Some politicians and activists appear to like the term, but many use it without a complete understanding of the genuine technical issues behind its coining. Thus, the term can spark some some pretty heated exchanges on talk shows and even at town meetings right here in Vermont.
Be that as it may, by the time you read this column-if all goes well-NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) will have been launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (the launch was set for Feb. 24). This unusual space mission will help scientists, back on Earth, better predict changes in our weather and climate; it will also improve our understanding about how natural hazards affect weather and long-term climate.
While OCO probably won't settle the public debate regarding climate change, it will go a long way in helping scientists gain more precise measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere.
OCO data should also improve our understanding of both natural processes and human activities that produce so-called greenhouse gases-who knows, we may learn definitively (within a year or two) whether fossil-fuel burning is causing climate change as many now claim.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is leading the OCO effort. The lab's expertise in spacecraft design and manufacture has made OCO one of the most sophisticated environmental satellites launched to date.
"OCO will be making one of the most challenging measurements of any atmospheric trace gas that has ever been made," said Charles Miller, OCO deputy principle investigator at JPL in Pasadena Calif.
Hamilton Sundstrand Sensor Systems of Pomona, Calif., provided a high-tech instrument that will measure carbon dioxide and oxygen molecules in the Earth's atmosphere; this instrument will study how the molecules of the two gases absorb sunlight.
With future data in hand, researchers should then be able to see where, and how, natural and man-made sources add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.