How Much CO2 Is In Our Atmosphere? There’s A New Way To Find Out.

OCO-3 Uses Spare Parts From OCO-2 | Photo by NASA/JPL-CALTECH through BBC

Many people have Carbon Dioxide (CO2) detectors in their homes and offices. They monitor the level of the gas in the air and respond with an alarm when a particular level of CO2 is reached. There is a scientific conundrum here. We need CO2 for our planet to flourish. We inhale air containing Oxygen (O2) and expel CO2 that the plants need and they in turn give back the O2 we need. All of those facts we learned in our earliest science class in school. There is an old saying that “You can have too much of a good thing.

Global CO2 Emission Graph | Image by Global Carbon Project through

That brings us up to our “Modern Day” world situation. It has been proven that CO2 levels in our atmosphere are increasing and, according to some scientists, at an alarming rate. Pushing CO2 levels even higher than they are currently could end up causing a planet-wide disaster. There are governmental and private sector programs that are trying to address the problem, but one issue is how to measure CO2 levels over the entire Earth. Exactly how can those levels be measured over so many remote locations worldwide?

OCO-3 Uses Spare Parts From OCO-2 | Photo by NASA/JPL-CALTECH through

Once again an article sparked my interest in this particular subject. The title of the article “NASA instrument heads to space station to map CO2” that appeared on was written by Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent.  The Orbiting Carbon Observatory missions, as they are called, are explained. Quoting  “OCO-3, as the observer is called, was launched on a Falcon rocket from the early hours of Saturday.” (Saturday May 4th) “The instrument is made from the spare components left over after the assembly of a satellite, OCO-2, which was put in orbit to do the same job in 2014. The data from two missions should give scientists a clearer idea of how CO2 moves through the atmosphere.”

ISS In Space
International Space Station As Seen From Space Shuttle | Photo by Upstream NASA
Japanese Kibo Lab On The ISS | Photo by NASA through

The NASA scientists are hoping that using data from both sensors will give them a much better picture of the concentrations of CO2 and how they are changing. What is the difference between them? After all, the sensors are about the same. The satellite containing OCO-2 is orbiting Earth in what is called a “sun-synchronous” Polar orbit in which it is able to, at the same time of day, observe the same particular place that is chosen. Since OCO-3 is located at the International Space Station in the Japanese Kibo Lab it will have a narrower range of locations, but at many times of the day, (between 51 degrees North and 51 Degrees South) to view as the station orbits Earth.

Why does the time of the day matter? It seems that plants don’t absorb CO2 at the same rate all day long, so being able to measure those differing absorption rates will give the scientists better understanding of how this actually works. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to get accurate data to use in determining the potential absorption rates for future forecasts of CO2 in the atmosphere without having this vital information.

CO2 Model | Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech Through

Quoting again “Humans are driving an imbalance in this cycle, increasing the concentration of the gas in the air. Currently, anthropogenic activities pump out just under 40 billion tonnes of CO2 year-on-year, principally from the burning of fossil fuels. Only half of this sum stays in the atmosphere, where it adds to warming. About half of the other half is absorbed into the ocean, with the remainder pulled down into land-sinks. But these “budgets” are imperfectly characterized. Some sizeable sources and sinks – both human and natural – need a fuller description.”

Spectrometer Advanced | Photo by Findel Education

Spectrometers are used because they can separate the sunlight into the various colors of the spectrum to determine how much CO2 is present in the atmosphere. OCO -3 that will be used from the International Space Station will make it possible to scan a much wider area of Earth’s surface than has been done before.

NASA Sentinal Series Of Observers | Image by

Others, besides NASA, are planning to send up similar observers. The Sentinal Series of observers will be sent up by the European Space Agency to monitor the gas levels. One final quote about the : “The orbiting network would even make it possible to police individual countries’ commitments to reduce carbon emissions under international agreements like the Paris climate accord of 2015.”

Let’s hope these projects actually help us to better understand the role of CO2 in our daily lives and for our future.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].


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