NASA successfully put the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) into orbit today after a last-minute problem delayed the planned launch yesterday. Previous attempts to launch similar satellites in 2009 and 2011 both failed because the rockets failed to separate as intended, so NASA’s reticence to take chances yesterday makes sense. The OCO-2 will monitor the movement of carbon into and out of the atmosphere to better understand carbon sinks on land.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 NASA

OCO-2 meant to reveal how the carbon cycle affects climate change

“With the launch of this spacecraft, decision-makers and scientists will get a much better idea of the role of carbon dioxide in climate change, as OCO-2 measures this greenhouse gas globally and provides incredibly new insights into where and how carbon dioxide is moving into, and then out of, the atmosphere,” said NASA OCO-2 program executive Betsy Edwards, Fox News reports.

The OCO-2 will be in a polar orbit, scanning the same stretch of earth every 16 days. Its grading spectrometer will record carbon levels with 1 part-per-million precision, giving scientists an unprecedented level of detail for understanding where carbon moves once it gets into the atmosphere.

When carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, by a power plant for instance, it doesn’t all remain in the atmosphere. About a quarter ends up absorbed into the world’s oceans, and about a quarter is absorbed over land, but scientists don’t know precisely where the land-based carbon sinks are located. Understanding the earth’s natural processes for handling excess carbon can help scientists and politicians devise better policies for combatting climate change.

NASA’s OCO-2 has enough fuel to extend its two-year mission

“Scientists predict that looking at these changes over time will give us patterns that are weeks or months or years long [and] that will help them to unravel the mysteries of the carbon cycle,” said Edwards.

The project is slated to last for two years, but the satellite has enough fuel to stay in orbit for a lot longer than that, so it could easily be extended or put to a slightly different use (keeping a satellite in orbit is much easier and much less expensive than putting one into orbit in the first place). The OCO-2 is slightly limited by only having the one scientific instrument onboard, but because it’s so high precision it could have applications for other projects.