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NASA’s next challenge

taurus-launch.jpgThe loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), which last week ended up in the ocean rather than in orbit, is a hard blow not only to the team who devoted much of the last decade to getting it off the ground but to scientific – and especially climate – research.

There is quite literally of sense of grief among the climate research community, evident in the story by Jeff Tollefson and Geoff Brumfiel over on Nature News. My colleague Anna Barnett interviewed David Crisp, OCO Principal Investigator, ahead of the launch. His excitement about the mission was palpable as he spoke of how the NASA satellite would measure atmospheric carbon dioxide at a resolution 3 times higher than any previous space measurement of a trace gas.

The Japanese space agency successfully launched their Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) in January and undoubtedly this will provide some of the data that OCO would have collected. But OCO would have provided an unprecedented spatial resolution. Taking half a million carbon dioxide measurements per day, the satellite would have located specific sources of the greenhouse gas, differentiating cities and freeways from adjacent forested areas.

Not only is this a huge loss for exploratory science, the timing of the incident is especially unfortunate. With emissions rising and a global climate deal in the balance, pinpointing the origin and fate of carbon dioxide has never been more urgent — a task that the US$280-million mission would have accomplished skillfully.

So what’s next for NASA? Personally, I think the agency should make every effort towards a rapid re-launch, as I’ve detailed in my latest editorial. Getting an OCO replacement into orbit within the next few years would offer at least a brief period of data verification with GOSAT – one advantage of having two CO2 trackers in space simultaneously – and would have the added advantage of monitoring carbon heavyweights from space during the early stages of a post-2012 global climate deal.


The mishap also calls for a close look at the Taurus XL rocket, whose malfunction caused the crash, bringing its failure rate to 25 per cent failure rate (2 of 8 missions have failed). As Gavin Schmidt points out over on Real Climate, this has another unfortunate consequence for climate science – the postponement of the Glory Mission, which would have also used a Taurus XL and will carry with it two unique instruments of relevance to climate research: one to measure the distribution of various atmospheric aerosols and another to continue collection of total solar irradiance data for the long-term climate record.

Whether NASA will go for a re-launch remains unclear, however. NASA officials were elusive about it at the press briefing following the crash, reports Lauren Morello over on Climate Wire (h/t Jonathan Hiskes on Gristmill):

Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science programs, said it was too soon to tell whether the agency would seek to rebuild the carbon observatory. “OCO was an important mission to measure critical elements of the carbon cycle,” he told reporters yesterday morning. “Over the next several days, weeks and months we are going to carefully evaluate how to move forward and advance the science.”

Replacing OCO should certainly be within the agency’s grasp. After all, the first mission was relatively inexpensive (for space flights) and a successor is unlikely to have the same costs in time or money. Surely the $400 million pegged for climate research at NASA from the recent economic stimulus bill could cover this and a lot besides. And there’s also the $260 million in new funding for climate science programs (specifically including satellite programs at NASA) included in last week’s spending bill for fiscal year 2009.

Olive Heffernan

Image: Taurus rocket, NASA

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    Steve Bloom said:

    Olive, what about that Canadian mini-satellite? The scientists running it seem to think that it can substitute for the OCO to a considerable extent. Apparently some additional data is available from the Sciamachy instrument.

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    Mustafa Ali Khan said:

    The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)would have solved a lot of problems. In the tropics database regarding carbon stocks in the natural systems and their flux is not very comprehensive and only a sketchy outline is present. OCO wiuld have helped in bridging this gap. One can only hope that a replacement is soon launched.

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