Caltech-Led Mission to Map Greenhouse Gas Emissions Named Finalist by NASA

NASA has selected Carbon-I, a proposal to map carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions globally at a higher-than-ever resolution, as a finalist for an upcoming space mission.

Carbon-I, which is short for the Carbon Investigation, was among four proposals selected to receive $5 million for a one-year feasibility study. After the feasibility studies are completed, NASA is expected to select two of the four missions to go to space, with the earliest launch date expected in 2030.

Currently, dedicated greenhouse gas missions globally map CO2 and CH4 at a resolution of around 2 to 10 kilometers, which makes it challenging to monitor areas like the tropics, where breaks in the thick cloud cover can be less than 1 kilometer in scale.

"By measuring accurately at fine spatial resolution, Carbon-I will solve two problems: fill data gaps in the tropics and characterize point-source emissions globally at the same time," says Carbon-I principal investigator Christian Frankenberg, professor of environmental science and engineering and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist.

"Because of its ability to measure multiple greenhouse gases simultaneously and to map their abundance at high spatial resolution globally, Carbon-I will finally make it possible to constrain both human and natural emissions with the precision and accuracy needed to inform climate action," says Carbon-I deputy principal investigator Anna Michalak, founding director of the Carnegie Science Climate and Resilience Hub and professor (by courtesy) at Stanford University. Carnegie Science is an independent research institution where investigators work across a broad range of disciplines to expand our frontiers of knowledge about the natural world. An alliance between Carnegie Science and Caltech  announced in July 2023  will advance bold new directions in life and environmental science research. 

In what is expected to be a three-year mission, Carbon-I would map the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions at a resolution of around 300 meters, with the capability of zooming in on specific locations at a resolution of as low as 30 meters. Beyond just spotting emissions, Carbon-I would be able to measure all major carbon compounds-CO2, carbon monoxide, and CH4-- simultaneously, which could help study processes that drive natural and anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. If the instrument is ultimately chosen by NASA to go to space, it will fly aboard a spacecraft designed and built by Lockheed Martin, which would also do some of the mission support.

"We are excited to collaborate with Caltech, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Carnegie on the concept study for the critical Carbon-I mission, on which we would provide the spacecraft and mission operations support," said Matt Mahlman, Weather and Earth Science director at Lockheed Martin. "Our space flight heritage and advanced satellite technology using the LM400 satellite bus would support the unique needs of this important environmental mission. Lockheed Martin has built and launched more than 120 weather, environmental and Earth observation spacecraft."

The project’s science team includes Paul Wennberg, the R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering, who played a leading role in the Orbiting Carbon Observatory projects that have provided the current cutting-edge greenhouse gas monitoring work. The team also includes researchers from JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA; the Carnegie Institution for Science; Stanford University; Harvard University; UC Davis; the University of Washington; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Collaborators on the project include Bethany Ehlmann, Caltech professor of planetary science and director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS). Ehlmann works with data types like what Carbon-I will collect and leads the Lunar Trailblazer mission , a Caltech-led NASA mission, which went through a similar selection and is scheduled to launch this year. 

NASA’s announcement can be found online here:­s/new-prop­osals-to-h­elp-nasa-a­dvance-kno­wledge-of-­our-changi­ng-climate

Image: Plumes of carbon dioxide in China, detected from space. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)