SpaceX launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3) to the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday morning at 2:48 am ET aboard the company's reliable Falcon 9 rocket. After NASA's cargo arrives at the ISS, astronauts will mount the refrigerator-sized device with a long robotic arm on the side of the Earth-moving station.
OCO-3 will look at the Earth and keep an eye on the planet's carbon emissions, which have reached their highest levels in millions of years.
"Carbon dioxide is the most important gas that humans release into the atmosphere," said Annmarie Eldering, project scientist for OCO-3 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Mashable in February. "Understanding what it will look like in the future is critical."
After the SpaceX rocket had risen into space, the booster – the lowest part of the rocket with nine powerful engines – returned to Earth. successfully landed on a drone ship in the Atlantic.
SpaceX now regularly lands its missiles both on drone ships and on land. It is a fundamental part of the space company's business model – reusing expensive rockets rather than letting them crash into the ocean. At the beginning of this month, SpaceX impressively landed three boosters after its massive Falcon Heavy rocket (consisting of three belted rockets) launched an Arab communications satellite into Earth's Earth orbit.
NASA had planned to launch at the end of April, but asked SpaceX for a delay until the Space Agency resolved a power distribution problem on the ISS that currently has six astronauts and cosmonauts.
OCO-3 – which can detect carbon dioxide concentrations on Earth in the range of 1 part per million – has hardly made it into space. In 2017 and 2018, the Trump government (protesting openly against climate science) tried to eliminate Earth observation instruments.
"We've heard that OCO-3 will not go," said Britton Stephens, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research working on the OCO-3 science team, in an interview. "The project has had many ups and downs."
But the advocacy of NASA leaders and Congressional support kept OCO-3 alive. Now it is in space.