Monday, 23 February 2009

NASA Launches Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)

In the early hours of tomorrow morning NASA is set to launch a new Earth-orbiting mission sponsored by the organisations Earth System Science Pathfinder Program. The plan is that the spacecraft will collect global measurements of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere to better understand how the gas gets there, provide more reliable forecasts of emissions and hence anticipated global warming

Some of the questions to be answered include:

- Where exactly is CO2 coming from and, more significantly, going to, including carbon sinks where CO2 is pulled out of the atmosphere and stored?

- Why does the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by Earth's natural ocean and land sinks vary dramatically from year to year?

Where is the "missing" carbon, i.e. the 30% percent of human-produced carbon dioxide that disappears into unknown places?

This is one aspect of Green IT that doesn't get talked about too much, but clearly there will be some very powerful computers around the world analysing the eight million CO2 measurements that the observatory will make every 16 days. (Significantly more than the current data available from a small network of instruments on the ground, in aircraft and from limited space observations).

It's also an area of IT that will grow significantly and it's not just because of a search for knowledge. Tracking carbon emissions and their short and long term impact will be an essential element of government policy making and corporate planning in the future. Phil DeCola, a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and former Orbiting Carbon Observatory program scientist, said the mission will serve as a prototype for the next generation of greenhouse gas space missions. "The Orbiting Carbon Observatory will be an important experiment because its results will be used to develop the future long-term, space-based missions needed to monitor carbon dioxide for science and decision support," he said.

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