In the skies, cutting edge tech seeks to answer key questions on the changing climate

Scientists and governments around the world are leaning on the latest tech advances when it comes to gathering information on high — from drones to satellite and rocket systems to big data tools — to fill in the gaps in knowledge around the planet’s changing climate. The trend is being pushed not just by cheaper and better technology — thanks to Moore’s Law — but is also being driven by the desire of organizations, countries, and scientists to provide data that can support policy decisions.

Cheaper and more accurate systems are enabling both more advanced remote monitoring of human activity that could be having an effect on the globe’s rising temperatures, and are also keeping close tabs on the world’s overall atmospheric changes. More sophisticated analytics are teasing out trends, drawing new conclusions and helping identify ways to lower greenhouse emissions.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, image courtesy of NASA/30th Space Wing, U.S. Air Force

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, or OCO-2, image courtesy of NASA/30th Space Wing, U.S. Air Force

On Tuesday, NASA plans to launch a satellite (called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California that will help monitor the carbon emissions released into the atmosphere around Earth. The satellite plans to pass over the North and South Poles at a height of 438 miles, observe the same locations every 16 days and take a million measurements a day. The satellite will be carrying a tool called a spectrometer that can measure the colors of sunlight that bounce off of the earth — the intensity of the colors indicates how much carbon dioxide there as the light passes through the atmosphere.

The information — which will provide much more data than land-based carbon emissions units — could help scientists learn more about how carbon emissions ebb and flow with the seasons (for a good explanation of this phenomenon watch this Cosmos episode) and also help provide answers to the complex way that plants absorb carbon emissions around the world. Will the oceans and plants continue to absorb carbon emissions at the same rate going forward? And how do droughts and floods affect how this works?

The satellite is being launched now after two failed attempts, where rockets previously crashed. The satellite and 300-pound instrument are being launched on another bigger rocket with a longer history of successful launches. Japan also has a satellite that tracks carbon emissions, which was launched in 2009. NASA has 17 other satellites in orbit that looks at Earth data.

The Obama administration has been increasingly interested in implementing policies that can reduce carbon emissions. Recently the EPA announced that it plans to reduce power plant emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, Image courtesy of NASA/U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, Image courtesy of NASA/U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 will cost $467.5 million this time around. But expect satellite and rocket technology to get even cheaper in the coming years. SpaceX is hard at work testing out reusable rockets. The idea is that the boost stage of a rocket — the part of the rocket that returns to Earth after launch instead of traveling into space — can land gently and could be recovered and reused for future launches. The boost stage of the rocket can be 70 percent of the cost of a rocket launch.

Startups and tech companies in Silicon Valley are focused on reducing the cost of satellites and satellite data. San Francisco-based Planet Labs, founded in 2010 by NASA alums, started launching their constellation of tiny satellites earlier this year. Their “Dove” satellites are meant to be low-cost, quickly deployable, and able to taking pictures of Earth that are down to the three to five meters. One of their major applications could be monitoring deforestation, a key contributor to climate change.

Images and environmental data taken from lower heights are also being used to monitor carbon emissions and answer questions about climate change. That would be data from aerial drones. Drone technology is quickly advancing with large Internet companies and startups alike investing heavily in innovations and standards.

Drones, image courtesy of Pond5/boscorelli.

Drones, image courtesy of Pond5/boscorelli.

The Chinese government has been using drones to monitor and discover illegal pollution and emissions from some of Chinese industrial giants. The Chinese government is trying to reduce air pollution considerably in certain regions and is using the drones to back up those policies.

More sophisticated big data tools are enabling the smart use of these monitoring technologies. Every hour NASA’s various missions compile hundreds of terabytes of information. NASA is now turning to analytics to make better predictions like estimating weather patterns and predicting rates of melting ice caps.

Digital eyes of course aren’t always positioned high and pointed down. IBM Research has developed “sky cameras,” which are high-resolution fish-eye lens cameras that can be pinned onto poles or the rooftops of buildings and are pointed upwards. The cameras continuously stream visual data about the atmosphere and cloud density and can feed data to solar systems to help predict how well solar systems will operate under various weather conditions.