Space-based measurements of carbon dioxide

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Artist's conception of OCO-2, the second successful high precision (better than 0.3%) CO
observing satellite.

Space-based measurements of carbon dioxide (CO
) are used to help answer questions about Earth's carbon cycle. There are a variety of active and planned instruments for measuring carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere from space. The first satellite mission designed to measure CO
was the Interferometric Monitor for Greenhouse Gases (IMG) on board the ADEOS I satellite in 1996. This mission lasted less than a year. Since then, additional space-based measurements have begun, including those from two high-precision (better than 0.3% or 1 ppm) satellites (GOSAT and OCO-2). Different instrument designs may reflect different primary missions.

Purposes and highlights of findings[edit]

There are outstanding questions in carbon cycle science that satellite observations can help answer. The Earth system absorbs about half of all anthropogenic CO
emissions.[1] However, it is unclear exactly how this uptake is partitioned to different regions across the globe. It is also uncertain how different regions will behave in terms of CO
flux under a different climate. For example, a forest may increase CO
uptake due to the fertilization or β-effect,[2] or it could release CO
due to increased metabolism by microbes at higher temperatures.[3] These questions are difficult to answer with historically spatially and temporally limited data sets.

Even though satellite observations of CO
are somewhat recent, they have been used for a number of different purposes, some of which are highlighted here.

  • Megacity CO
    enhancements were observed with the GOSAT satellite and minimum observable space-based changes in emissions were estimated.[4]
  • Satellite observations have been used for visualizing how CO
    is distributed globally,[5] including studies that have focused on anthropogenic emissions.[6]
  • Flux estimates were made of CO
    into and out of different regions.[7][8]
  • Correlations were observed between anomalous temperatures and CO
    measurements in boreal regions.[9]
  • Zonal asymmetric patterns of CO
    were used to observe fossil fuel signatures.[10]
  • Emission ratios with methane were measured from forest fires.[11]
  • CO
    emission ratios with carbon monoxide (a marker of incomplete combustion) measured by the MOPITT instrument were analyzed over major urban regions across the globe to measure developing/developed status.[12]
  • OCO-2 observations were used to estimate CO
    emissions from wildfires in Indonesia in 2015.[13]
  • OCO-2 observations were also used to estimate the excess land-ocean flux due to the 2014–16 El Niño event.[14][15]
  • GOSAT observations were used to attribute 2010-2011 El Niño Modoki on the Brazilian carbon balance.[16]


Remote sensing of trace gases has several challenges. Most techniques rely on observing infrared light reflected off Earth's surface. Because these instruments use spectroscopy, at each sounding footprint a spectrum is recorded—this means there is a significantly (about 1000×) more data to transfer than what would be required of just an RGB pixel. Changes in surface albedo and viewing angles may affect measurements, and satellites may employ different viewing modes over different locations; these may be accounted for in the algorithms used to convert raw into final measurements. As with other space-based instruments, space debris must be avoided to prevent damage.

Water vapor can dilute other gases in air and thus change the amount of CO
in a column above the surface of the Earth, so often column-average dry-air mole fractions (XCO
) are reported instead. To calculate this, instruments may also measure O2, which is diluted similarly to other gases, or the algorithms may account for water and surface pressure from other measurements.[17] Clouds may interfere with accurate measurements so platforms may include instruments to measure clouds. Because of measurement imperfections and errors in fitting signals to obtain XCO
, space-based observations may also be compared with ground-based observations such as those from the TCCON.[18]

List of instruments[edit]

Instrument/satellite Primary institution(s) Service dates Approximate usable
daily soundings
sounding size
Public data Notes Refs
HIRS-2/TOVS (NOAA-10) NOAA (U.S.) July 1987–
June 1991
100 × 100 km No Measuring CO
was not an original mission goal
IMG (ADEOS I) NASDA (Japan) 17 August 1996–
June 1997
50 8 × 8 km No FTS system [20]
SCIAMACHY (Envisat) ESA, IUP University of Bremen (Germany) 1 March 2002–
May 2012
5,000 30 × 60 km Yes[21] [22]
AIRS (Aqua) JPL (U.S.) 4 May 2002–
18,000 90 × 90 km Yes[23] [24][25]
IASI (MetOp) CNES/EUMETSAT (ESA) 19 October 2006 20-39 km diameter Yes (only a few days)[26] [27]
GOSAT JAXA (Japan) 23 January 2009–
10,000 10.5 km diameter Yes[28] First dedicated high precision (<0.3%) mission, also measures CH4 [29][30]
OCO JPL (U.S.) 24 February 2009 100,000 1.3 × 2.2 km N/A Failed to reach orbit[31]
OCO-2 JPL (U.S.) 2 July 2014–
100,000 1.3 × 2.2 km Yes[32] High precision (<0.3%) [33]
GHGSat-D (or Claire) GHGSat (Canada) 21 June 2016–
~2–5 images,
10,000+ pixels each
12 × 12 km,
50 m resolution image
available to selected partners only CubeSat and imaging spectrometer [34]
TanSat (or CarbonSat) CAS (China) 21 December 2016–
100,000 1 × 2 km Yes (L1B radiances)[35] [36][37]
GAS FTS aboard FY-3D CMA (China) 15 November 2017–
15,000 13 km diameter Instrument testing and validation phase [39][40]
GMI (GaoFen-5, (fr)) CAS (China) 8 May 2018–
10.3 km diameter Instrument testing and validation phase [42][43]
GOSAT-2 JAXA (Japan) 29 October 2018–
10,000+ 9.7 km diameter expected release in 2019 Will also measure CH4 and CO [45]
OCO-3 JPL (U.S.) expected April 2019[46] 100,000 <4.5 × 4.5 km To be mounted on the ISS [47]
MicroCarb CNES (France) expected 2020 ~30,000 4.5 × 9 km Will likely also measure CH4 [48]
GOSAT-3 JAXA (Japan) expected 2022
GeoCARB University of Oklahoma (U.S.) expected 2023 ~800,000 3 × 6 km First CO
-observing geosynchronous satellite, will also measure CH4 and CO

There have been other conceptual missions which have undergone initial evaluations but have not been chosen to become a part of space-based observing systems. These include:

  • Active Sensing of CO
    Emissions over Nights, Days, and Seasons (ASCENDS) is a lidar-based mission[51]
  • Geostationary Fourier Transform Spectrometer (GeoFTS)[52]
  • Atmospheric Imaging Mission for Northern regions (AIM-North) would involve a constellation of two satellites focused on polar regions[53]


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