A week ago, NASA’s carbon dioxide (CO2) tracking satellite was destroyed en route to space by a faulty booster. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was intended to produce large numbers of measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide in different parts of the atmosphere. In so doing, it would have helped to identify major CO2 sources and sinks – deepening our understanding of the carbon cycle under human influence. Given the destruction of the original instrument, I think the only sensible course of action is to rebuild it as quickly as can be managed and place it into orbit.
The original mission cost about US$280 million and took about nine years to reach a launch attempt. That being said, it stands to reason that building a second unit would cost less, given that the design and concept testing has already been done. We might also hope that a second unit could be assembled, tested, and launched more quickly. Even if a replacement would cost as much as the original, it would be less than $1 per American, far less per human being, and some tiny fraction of the cost of wars and bank bailouts.
As IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri has said: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” Satellite images of the ozone hole helped to propel international action to restrict the emission of CFCs. There is reason to hope that similar data on greenhouse gasses might generate an equivalent political push. Even if it doesn’t, and the data from the OCO remains under the exclusive scrutiny of geeks, it should give us a deeper understanding of how the basic chemical, physical, and biological systems of the planet function – and how human beings are researching them. That is information worth $280 million.
One could do as some have and point to the US$$400 million that NASA was granted in the American stimulus package, specifically for climate change research. One could also point to the fundamental wastefulness and irrelevance of manned spaceflight, given our current problems. Either way, the United States should scrape together the cash for a new satellite, and put it on a more reliable rocket this time.