NASA's latest rocket has blasted off successfully, beginning a new and potentially controversial study into carbon dioxide gas in Earth's atmosphere which could have broad implications on climate change research. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) promises hitherto-unmatched precision measurements from 438 miles above our planet, carrying instruments that NASA says are capable of counting individual molecules.
In fact, the six foot long, three foot wide hexagonal craft carries just one single instrument, dedicated to identifying carbon dioxide. Three high-resolution spectrometers operate in parallel, each tuned to a specific range of colors created by light reflecting off Earth's surface and through atmospheric gases.
Different gases cause different absorption lines in that spectrum of colors, in effect acting as unique fingerprints which the satellite will track.
OCO-2 - as the name suggests - isn't the first attempt to do this. In fact, back in early 2009, NASA attempted to launch the original Orbiting Carbon Observatory, but a fault with the rocket saw it re-enter the atmosphere and eventually crash into the Indian Ocean.
Over the course of its planned two year mission, OCO-2 will not only count carbon dioxide molecules but track the changes in their absorption over time. That will allow scientists to see how the planet "breathes" the gas, and whether changes in levels are cause for concern.
Such concerns have already seen NASA plunge into arguments over climate change, and what role mankind plays in it. Earlier this month, the space agency revealed that its measurements indicated melting glaciers could not be stopped, while only last month rising ocean levels were blamed for an unexpected - and unwanted - exhuming of war dead in the Marshall Islands.