On Tuesday, the first spacecraft with the sole mission of studying carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere will launch.
NASA's $465 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite (OCO-2) will blast off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base at 2:56 a.m. local time. The satellite will go to the polar orbit 483 miles above the Earth and give scientists insight into the planet's carbon cycle and identify man-made and natural sources of carbon sinks, like forests and oceans, which remove C02 from the atmosphere.
The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has grown from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to 400 parts per million today, Space.com reports. Scientists believe this increase is the reason behind the Earth's warming trend. It is at its highest concentration in at least 800,000 years, with 40 billion tons of CO2 entering the atmosphere every year. Sinks are only able to remove 20 billion tons on average each year.
"Now that humans are acknowledging the environmental effects of our dependence on fossil fuels and other carbon dioxide–emitting activities, our goal is to analyze the sources and sinks of this carbon dioxide and to find better ways to manage it," says Gregg Marland, geology professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.
NASA will begin streaming live coverage of the launch on NASA TV starting at 3:45 a.m. ET Tuesday.