"The enormous challenges inherent in the mission are due to the small variations in the amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Those levels range from a maximum of 362 carbon dioxide molecules in 1 million molecules of air, to a minimum of 351 carbon dioxide molecules in 1 million air molecules - a 0.3 percent difference," said David Crisp, principle investigator for the OCO at JPL.
Right now, the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center of the U. S. Department of Energy tracks and monitors CO2 emissions as part of a worldwide network of ground-based stations. Unfortunately, the DOE network can't "see" the a part of the distribution of CO2 sources, at least on the continent-size scale; so getting into outer space and looking down on the Earth will provide better measurements.
"These measurements will be combined with data from the ground-based network to provide us with the information that we will need to better understand the processes that regulate atmospheric CO2 and its role in the carbon cycle. This enhanced understanding is essential to improve predictions of future atmospheric CO2 increases and their impact on the climate. This information could help policy makers and business leaders make better decisions to ensure climate stability and, at the same time, retain our quality of life," said Crisp.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is currently part of the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program team in Vermont.