LOS ANGELES (AP) - Five years after a NASA satellite to track carbon dioxide plunged into the ocean after liftoff, the space agency is launching a carbon copy - this time on a different rocket.
The $468 million mission is designed to study the main driver of climate change emitted from smokestacks and tailpipes. Some of the carbon dioxide is sucked up by trees and oceans, and the rest is lofted into the atmosphere.
But atmospheric CO2 levels fluctuate with the seasons and in different regions of the Earth. The natural and human activities that could cause the changes are complicated. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2 for short, will be able to take an ultra-detailed look at most of the Earth's surface to identify places responsible for producing or absorbing the greenhouse gas.
This artist’s concept rendering provided by NASA shows their Orbiting Carbon Observatory, OCO-2.
"This will allow us to understand what processes are controlling how much carbon is absorbed in a given time and place," Anna Michalak, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science who is not part of the mission, said in an email.
The mission, designed to last two years, could provide data that will help scientists making predictions about future carbon dioxide levels and their impact.
NASA suffered a major scientific - and financial - disaster in 2009 when a rocket carrying the original satellite plummeted into the waters off Antarctica minutes after soaring from Vandenberg Air Force Base along the central California coast.
After the loss, engineers went back to the drawing board and built a near-identical twin that was set to launch before dawn Tuesday.
Instead of using the same rocket, the replacement will be flown on a Delta 2, a workhorse booster that once faced a murky future.
Scientists who have no role in the mission welcomed the latest flight attempt. They said it would have taken even longer to get to the launch pad with a completely new design.
"We don't have time to waste. We need solutions now," said Elisabeth Holland, a professor of climate change at the University of South Pacific in Fiji who helped write the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
There has not been an Earth-observing satellite dedicated to tracking carbon dioxide since the Japanese launched one in 2009.
"It's really the fate of carbon dioxide once it's in the atmosphere that we're trying to really put our finger on," project scientist Michael Gunson of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory said during a recent pre-launch press conference.