NASA Will Launch GeoCARB To Measure Our Planet's Carbon Cycle

First of its kind, this Earth science mission will measure greenhouse gases and monitor plant health from space.

NASA has announced its pick for a new Earth science mission that will probe our planet’s carbon cycle from space in a first-of-its-kind monitoring effort.

This Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCARB) proposal by distinguished Earth scientist Berrien Moore from the University of Oklahoma has been awarded a five-year grant of AU$220 million for the initial development, launch, and data analysis.

The observatory, launched as a payload on a commercial communications satellite to the dizzying height of 35,400 kilometres, will be observing the atmosphere and plant life across the Americas, gathering data with unprecedented detail.

GeoCARB will take daily measurements of three vital greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide. On top of that, it will also monitor the health of vegetation across the continents by measuring solar-induced chlorophyll fluorescence, a light signal plants emit during photosynthesis. This signal carries information about the functioning, stress levels, and vitality of the plants.

Finney County in southwestern Kansas is now irrigated cropland where once there was shortgrass prairie. Green areas in the image are healthy vegetation.
PHOTO CREDIT: NASA/GSFC/METI/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

All of these measurements will provide new detail on our planet’s natural carbon cycle, the continuous process that ensures vital carbon atoms are reused over and over for all living organisms in the Earth’s biosphere and environment.

GeoCARB was one of 15 proposals submitted to NASA’s Earth Venture missions program, which aims to accommodate new scientific priorities within the Earth science field by developing cost-effective projects with rapid turnarounds. The first project picked for this series was the CYGNSS hurricane research project, consisting of eight micro-satellites that calculate wind speeds across the world's oceans.

The plan to launch GeoCARB on a commercial satellite payload means the observatory will be adding scientific value to an otherwise unused launch capacity. NASA also hopes that the model will prove useful to other space programs around the globe, which will allow to expand these carbon cycle observations to other continents.

Video: British-born U.S. astronaut Piers Seller tells Leonardo DiCaprio how he has turned his attention to climate science and how NASA is using the Earth's satellites to monitor the impacts of climate change.

Header image: Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan as seen from the International Space Station on May 31, 2016. PHOTO BY EXPEDITION 47 CREW, NASA

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