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Congress orders replacement carbon monitoring satellite

oco US Congress is set to order a replacement carbon-observing satellite that could help in the verification of a climate treaty that is being negotiated in Copenhagen this week. In a mammoth $447 billion spending bill agreed to by members of Congress on Tuesday, NASA would spend $50 million in 2010 to work on a replacement to the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), which in February crashed into the ocean after a rocket failure.

“This is very good news for us,” says David Crisp, the principal investigator for the mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “It looks like there is a future here.”

In July, a National Academies letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said a rebuild of OCO would be an important way of providing baseline emission data and a proof of concept of monitoring carbon sources and sinks from space — two crucial elements in any eventual climate treaty that are currently lacking.

Crisp says a replacement OCO would cost about the same as the original $280 million mission. He says $50 million in 2010 would allow him to keep essential scientists and engineers. He could also begin buying parts that require long lead times, such as detectors and a new flight computer. But the money is not enough to put a re-launch on the most aggressive path. “This is what we hoped we would achieve to march in place,” he says. The best case, assuming full funding in 2011 and 2012, would be a launch in early 2013, he says.

NASA has not officially ordered a restart of the project, though Crisp has already been allowed to renew a few contracts on specific spacecraft parts. NASA spokesman Stephen Cole declined to comment.

OCO, with its ability to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere via reflected sunlight, would have been the first satellite to monitor very small point sources and sinks of carbon dioxide, as it is emitted to and absorbed from the atmosphere. It would be an improvement on a satellite system, GOSAT or IBUKI, which launched in January. OCO would have a footprint about 3 square kilometres — almost 30 times smaller than GOSAT — and a sensitivity as small as 1 part per million carbon. Crisp says it could identify point sources of carbon dioxide as small as a 20 megawatt power plant.

The money from Congress is not final yet. The spending bill must be approved by full votes of both the House, which is expected to vote later this week, and the Senate, which plans to vote before the current budget, a continuing resolution, expires on 18 December. At that point, the bill would go to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

But if that happens as is expected, NASA will be faced with the difficult task of prioritizing OCO in front of other missions. About half of the $50 million is new money from Congress, and the other half could come from other unspent accounts and stimulus act money for Earth science — so it looks as if there will be no hard consequences elsewhere in the 2010 budget.

A bigger question is what happens in 2011, when an OCO replacement would require a much fatter budget, on the order of $100 million or so. NASA is not expected to get large increases to its 2011 budget request, and, moreover, Congress has directed NASA to aggressively pursue other Earth science missions, such as CLARREO — so NASA will be restrained from delaying those missions to pay for OCO. Crisp will be watching closely when the 2011 budget request comes out in February.

Image: NASA/JPL

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