Exelis announced on Jan. 5 that it has acquired a contract from NASA that would support the agency's research into tracking how methane, carbon dioxide and other gases are transported by weather systems into the atmosphere, offering a better way of understanding climate change.

As a participant in the Atmospheric Carbon and Transport-America project, Exelis will be modifying its Multi-Functional Fiber Laser LIDAR (MFLL) so it can be integrated into the aircraft NASA uses and will be providing support for five extensive flight campaigns designed for collecting regional measurements of carbon dioxide. Pennsylvania State University will be joining Exelis and NASA's Langley Research Center in the project.

By using ground-, air- and space-based data collected over the United States' eastern half, the project hopes to improve the identification and prediction of sources and sinks for methane and carbon dioxide.

According to Jeremy Dobler, senior scientist and program manager from Exelis, this is important because not enough is known about the carbon cycle to allow scientists to predict and manage the environmental effects of the gas.

An active LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) device with remote-sensing capabilities, the MFLL will be using light in intensity-modulated, continuous-wave laser form in measuring differences in atmospheric absorption at closely spaced wavelengths.

Using different absorption rates, alongside range measurement, will help determine the specific number of a certain molecule within a column of air. Not like passive instruments used in measuring carbon dioxide, the active LIDAR method allows for measurements to be taken at night, through thin clouds and at high heights, enabling more complete data to be collected.

Exelis' contract comes in time as NASA released the results of a study it led, showing the role of tropical forests in carbon dioxide absorption. It turns out, lush greenery is filtering out more than the usual level that a lot of scientists initially thought, pointing out that carbon dioxide levels are higher than expected.

The study estimates that 1.4 billion metric tons of the gas are absorbed by tropical forests out of the world's total absorption of 2.5 billion. That's more than what boreal forests -- forests in Siberia, Canada and other regions up north -- happen to be absorbing.

Forests, in general, and other kinds of plants on land are responsible for removing up to 30 percent of carbon dioxide humans produce, collecting the gas from the atmosphere to complete photosynthesis. Should carbon dioxide absorption decline, global warming would speed up as a consequence.

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