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


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.

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

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