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Once more into the breach for Orbital Sciences and the carbon observatory

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was meant to precisely measure carbon dioxide throughout Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, it wound up shattering on the Pacific Ocean* near Antarctica in 2009, a victim of a failed fairing—the aerodynamic nose cone shroud that keeps the satellite from burning up during launch.

The loss of the satellite was a blow to U.S. efforts to measure the most ubiquitous gas causing climate change. Instead, NASA had to content itself with the ICESCAPE mission—a cruise, perhaps better suited to NOAA, to investigate the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

But there is another opportunity. The Obama administration has resurrected the OCO program and, on June 22, NASA awarded the contract to launch it to… Orbital Sciences Corp., the same company whose technology failed last time out.

"Orbital Sciences Corp. offered NASA the best value and fully met the requirements," wrote NASA spokesman Michael Curie in an e-mail response to questions. "NASA is working through a ‘return to flight’ corrective action plan that will be completed before our next use of the Taurus XL," which is Orbital Sciences’ rocket.

The Taurus has had a spotty track record to date: out of eight launches, two have been failures, including the OCO. Orbital Sciences’ competitor in bidding on the launch—SpaceX—has done even worse, though, despite a recent high-profile success.

And, to be fair, NASA may not want to change too much, according to my colleague (and space nut) Michael Battaglia. After all, the big explosion—the launch—worked last time out; it was the little explosion—the exploding bolts on the fairing—that likely failed. Why mess with success?

That will certainly help the relaunch of the satellite to come sooner, February 2013 to be precise, which counts as a quick turnaround for the space agency. In the meantime, the Japanese have a satellite in orbit ("Ibuki" or "breath" in Japanese) that is measuring CO2 and methane levels in a different way and NASA’s Aqua satellite can perform some CO2 measurements. But it will take OCO 2 to precisely label the sources and sinks of the primary greenhouse gas changing the global climate. Those data will play an important monitoring role in any global effort to curb climate change. Better luck next time.

Image: A NASA rendering of the ill-fated original OCO. (The second orbiting carbon observatory will basically be a carbon copy of the first with minor changes, according to JPL.)

* This sentence was corrected on 6/24/10.





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  1. 1. shvegas 6:01 pm 06/23/2010

    " the most ubiquitous gas causing climate change" This statement may be true. Basically it is saying that there is more CO2 in the atmosphere than other greenhouse gases and it may have an impact on climate change (even if it is infinitesimal) but that doesn’t mean that less ubiquitous gases are having more of an impact on climate change. It also doesn’t mean that CO2 is what is driving climate change.

    Link to this
  2. 2. jackalope66 12:44 am 06/24/2010

    No, it is not saying that there is more CO2 than other greenhouse gases. It is already understood that CO2 has the longest residence time in the atmosphere of the major greenhouse gases and its increase in the last 150 years is due almost completely to human activity. It is definitely what is driving climate change.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jackalope66 12:51 am 06/24/2010

    No, it is not saying that there is more CO2 in the atmosphere than other greenhouse gases. It is already well understood that CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas due to its extremely long residence time in the atmosphere and that the heating it causes will stimulate the release of other greenhouse gases that are not human-induced.

    Its rapid increase in concentration over the last 150 years is due entirely to human activities. If we convert the remaining hydrocarbons in the earth’s crust to CO2 we are converting the Earth to another planet. This is what is driving climate change. It is time to treat CO2 as a pollutant.

    Link to this
  4. 4. eddiequest 11:43 am 06/24/2010

    "to precisely label the sources and sinks"… EEEEXCELLENT!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Wombat 5:00 pm 06/24/2010

    Ah – the satellite which, according to one Christopher Monckton, NASA intentionally "crashed" into the ocean in order to hide the results? Well, better luck this time!
    http://www.climateshifts.org/?p=4360

    Link to this
  6. 6. laurenra7 6:20 am 06/25/2010

    @jackalope66, it has not yet been demonstrated that the human-produced CO2 of the last 150 years has generated any significant warming. Though the warming caused by CO2 due to the "greenhouse effect" is understood in a closed system, the real world observed so far behaves differently.

    The earth has gone through several short- and long-term warming cycles which have caused CO2 to increase in the atmosphere without any human input. The CO2 increase lags the temperature increase by several hundred years. The increase in CO2 of the last 150 years is NOT due entirely to human activities.

    How much the global mean temperature has increased over the last two centuries and whether or not the increase is unusual and human-caused is still a matter of research and debate, though many insist that the "science is settled." ClimateGate revealed how unsettled the science is and how much a few influential individuals and groups have adversely affected the public perception of climate science.

    CO2 is not a pollutant. It is essential to life on earth.

    Also, warming is a good thing. It’s conducive to the flourishing of life on earth. North American agriculture is much more productive than it presumably could have been 20,000 years ago when much of it was covered in a mile of ice. I’m glad I won’t be around for the next ice age.

    Finally, the best way to deal with climate change and other slow processes affecting our environment is to do what humans and most other organisms already do well: adapt.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Jürgen Hubert 1:55 am 06/29/2010

    "CO2 is not a pollutant. It is essential to life on earth."

    So is oxygen, but too much of _that_ is unhealthy, too.

    Link to this

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