The Eye in the Sky on Carbon Dioxide

Update: The eye in the sky didn’t quite make it to its lofty perch — after it’s launch this morning the satellite failed to reach orbit.

It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s a carbon-spotting satellite from NASA! The U.S. space agency’s first satellite to study atmospheric carbon dioxide is set to launch tomorrow morning, a potential boon for environmental watchdogs, as well as cleantech firms looking to pitch their pollution-cutting wares or sell carbon credits to the biggest emitters of CO2 on the planet.


But if you just can’t wait till the satellite starts beaming its info from space, you can already check out the current data on CO2 across the U.S. through a newly-released map for Google Earth. Researchers at Purdue University put up the map last week, which can show pollution from factories, power plants, roadways, and residential and commercial buildings by state, county or population. The Purdue team is aiming to eventually have emissions data at the street level, and they plan to expand the project, called Project Vulcan, to other countries, starting with Canada and Mexico.

The free, easy-to-use Google Earth map, and the more detailed information that will come from the satellite, could help put pressure on companies to cut down on their fossil-fueled emissions, especially if a cap-and-trade program is introduced by the Obama administration, as has been promised. Cleantech firms could use the colorful data to convince municipalities and utilities to invest more in renewable energy and energy efficiency to comply with any new emissions standards.

Instead of digging through charts and graphs, anybody around the world can use the Project Vulcan map to check out, in 3-D, where the most CO2 is being spewed. And in some cases you can even see which individual power plants are pumping out the most pollution in your area. The Vulcan map can show facilities that use continuous emissions monitoring systems that are reported under the EPA’s Acid Rain Program.

There’s no word on whether that map will end up getting fed more detailed information once NASA’s satellite starts its carbon spy mission, but the Purdue team already has a space agency connection —  Project Vulcan has received some funding, and images, from NASA — so it could end up on the inside track. The map currently gets its CO2 emissions data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy and culls population data from the Census Bureau. For now, Purdue said Project Vulcan will complement NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, the official name for the new spacecraft, which is expected to map the globe once every 16 days for at least two years.