Researchers are developing a new satellite mission that could significantly improve their understanding of how greenhouse gases move throughout Earth—an innovation that would benefit both climate science and the energy industry.
The Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCARB) satellite, which is being developed, will track in real time key metrics of climate change, including the buildup of carbon dioxide over the Americas, according to NASA. It will also measure methane, a potent greenhouse gas and contributor to global warming, near the Earth's surface. Methane leaks cost the natural gas industry up to $10 billion annually, according to NASA.
GeoCARB will travel 22,236 miles above Earth and collect 10 million daily observations of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and solar-induced fluorescence, according to researchers. The satellite will travel at the same speed as the Earth's rotation, which allows it to continuously monitor the same region. The low-Earth instrument will map the concentrations of key greenhouse gases over the Americas, from the tip of South America to the Hudson Bay, and is targeted for launch in the early 2020s, said David Crisp, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, managed by the California Institute of Technology.
"Whereas other satellites are rotating around the Earth maybe 14 or 15 times a day, measuring just little parts of the world, what you can do from a geostationary satellite is sit over North and South America and map the whole thing out continuously during the day, rather than part of the day," he said.
At a time when the White House and some conservatives in Congress want to slash climate science funding, GeoCARB may be a model for future scientific missions that appeals to both sides of the aisle. It provides essential information for the energy industry, potentially saving billions every year, and it can dramatically improve climate science models by improving tracking of the carbon cycle. Slashing climate research at NASA, which routinely launches Earth-observing instruments that conduct a wide range of functions, is harder if the research has broad appeal for both Republican and Democratic policymakers.
"Our job is to actually make the tools that the policymakers need so that they can make good decisions," Crisp said.
The satellite is also made to be cost-effective and in partnership with private industry. Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee have explored creating a greater role in space exploration for the private sector. The GeoCARB satellite will be about a third or a quarter the cost of a traditional mission because it will essentially rent space on a commercial satellite, said Berrien Moore, the mission's principal investigator and a researcher at the University of Oklahoma. It will become part of a commercial communications satellite, such as one used for satellite television or telephones.
"It's expensive, but it's nowhere near as expensive as buying a satellite and buying a launch and operating a satellite, all of which you have to do if you own the spacecraft," he said. "In this case, we're just renting the bottom of the spacecraft."
While it may be a model for how to advance climate research at a time when it is targeted for elimination in Washington, GeoCARB has the potential to shape climate science for years to come, researchers said.
GeoCARB will explore some of the most prevalent questions now facing climate scientists. Scientists have long viewed the Amazon as a major storage source for carbon dioxide, as it is converted by the region's vast vegetation, and the new data will provide a clearer window into that process. GeoCARB will also look at how carbon is exchanged among the land, the ocean and atmosphere and how it is transported by the wind, according to the researchers. Previously, satellite observations have provided a more limited glimpse of the carbon cycle by passing over certain regions only at night, for example, missing a key metric of the photosynthesis process, according to researchers.
Satellites monitoring Earth typically observe the same spots on the planet at the same time every day. It's a limited window that doesn't provide a complete measure of the carbon cycle, Moore said. For example, he said, researchers will be able to track carbon dioxide washing over the Amazon Basin from the ocean first thing in the morning and then watch how it is absorbed by the region's lush vegetation.
GeoCARB will also track the effects of drought on plant health. The tracking of solar-induced fluorescence, which is the glow emitted by chlorophyll molecules in the leaves of plants, will allow scientists to better understand how drought affects plants and its implications for the agriculture industry, according to NASA. It will provide real-time measurements on how drought shapes photosynthesis forests, crops and grasslands.
It will also look at whether methane emissions in the United States have been underestimated, something environmental groups have long contended and that industry has questioned. Estimates for methane emissions vary widely, and GeoCARB will make them much more accurate, Moore said.
"We can't get down to the exact leakage spot, but we can sure tell the natural gas industries what the total emissions appear to be, the fugitive emissions as they're called," he said. "Secondly, we can say it appears to be pipelines or it appears to be drilling fields or it appears to be this or that, and we can see if there is any seasonal pattern, any monthly pattern to these releases, because we're going to look at them every day."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.