NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory


in Bombs and rockets, Geek stuff, Science, The environment

Trees and deep blue sky

Later this month, NASA will be launching the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO): the first satellite designed to make precise measurements of carbon dioxide release and absorption around the world. This should provide important new information about how carbon dioxide is being emitted from human activities and degraded sources (such as decaying forests), as well as the operation of those natural sinks that continue to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The OCO will work using three parallel high-resolution spectrometers, being fed light by a common telescope. They will simultaneously measure concentrations of CO2 and molecular oxygen.

The new satellite will be placed at the front of a string of satellites in the same orbit: the Earth Observing System Afternoon Constellation, known more informally as the A-train. By having the satellites all look at the same areas in quick succession, the data from their various instruments can be assembled into a single high-quality, three-dimensional dataset. Five satellites are already in orbit, with two planned, including the OCO.

If all goes well, the OCO should be in orbit on February 24th.

[Update: 24 February 2009] It seems the launch has failed and the satellite has been destroyed. This is very disappointing: a blow to climate science, and to our chances of avoiding dangerous climate change. Hopefully, NASA will rebuild the satellite and try launching it again.

That would be a much better expenditure of resources than adding to the ISS or flying shuttles.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

. February 10, 2009 at 11:42 am

Official site

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) is a new Earth orbiting mission sponsored by NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder Project (ESSP) Program. The ESSP Program funds competitively selected, low to moderate cost Earth Science missions. These highly focused missions acquire exploratory measurements of the atmosphere, the oceans, the land surface and the solid Earth. These missions share a common goal of improving the capability of Earth scientists to predict changes in weather, climate and natural hazards.

After launch in 2009, the OCO mission will collect precise global measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists will analyze OCO data to improve our understanding of the natural processes and human activities that regulate the abundance and distribution of this important greenhouse gas. This improved understanding will enable more reliable forecasts of future changes in the abundance and distribution of CO2 in the atmosphere and the effect that these changes may have on the Earth’s climate.

Emily February 10, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Very pretty photo. What a shocking blue sky!

Milan February 10, 2009 at 2:17 pm

If you shoot outdoors using a tungsten white balance, you get a very wintery look, with extra-blue skies.

I am a bit embarrassed to say that this is a photo from Christmas in Vermont. I have run out of good ones that are more recent.

Milan February 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Here is an article about the OCO and the Japanese Ibuki satellite.

They are both exciting projects. While OCO focuses on CO2, Ibuki also looks at methane, clouds and other aerosols.

. February 22, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Satellite Will Track Carbon Dioxide

Published: February 22, 2009

Thirty billion tons of carbon dioxide waft into the air from the burning of fossil fuels each year. About half of the 30 billion tons stays in the air. The other half disappears. Where it all goes, nobody quite knows.

With the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a NASA satellite scheduled to be launched Tuesday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, scientists hope to better understand the comings and goings of carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas driving the current warming of the planet.

The new data could help improve climate models and improve the understanding of the “carbon sinks” like oceans and forests that currently absorb much of the carbon dioxide.

. February 23, 2009 at 10:35 am

Five Things About the Orbiting Carbon Observatory

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory is on the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Image credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin

February 20, 2009

Here are some quick facts about the Earth-orbiting satellite, scheduled to launch on Feb. 24, 2009.

. February 24, 2009 at 8:55 am

NASA global warming satellite has troubled launch

55 minutes ago

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) — A NASA satellite designed to track carbon dioxide emissions failed to reach orbit early Tuesday in a mishap that could jeopardize its mission to better understand climate change.

The Taurus XL rocket carrying the Orbiting Carbon Observatory blasted off as planned at 1:55 a.m. PST from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s Central Coast.

Several minutes into the flight, launch managers declared a “contingency plan” after the payload fairing failed to separate from the launch vehicle. The fairing protects the spacecraft as the launch vehicle flies through the atmosphere.

. February 24, 2009 at 8:56 am

Failure hits Nasa’s ‘CO2 hunter’
Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Nasa’s first mission to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) from space has failed following a rocket malfunction.

Officials said the fairing – the part of the rocket which covers the satellite on top of the launcher – had failed to separate properly.

Officials said the satellite had now crashed in Antarctica.

R.K. February 24, 2009 at 9:46 am

This is probably Cheney’s doing.

Milan February 24, 2009 at 11:53 am

Given all the design and testing work that has already been done, they could probably build a replacement satellite for much less than the cost of the original.

Given the importance of understanding carbon dioxide sources and sinks, they should probably do so pronto.

. February 24, 2009 at 12:06 pm

Lift-off for Nasa’s ‘CO2 hunter’
By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

The OCO team is working closely with the Japanese Gosat (“Ibuki”) mission which launched its carbon observatory last month.

The orbits of the two spacecraft will cross six times each day.

The groups use different measurement approaches, which will provide a cross-check on each other’s data. Both will take their calibration from ground stations which, although limited in number, can measure CO2 with much higher precision at their locality.

. February 25, 2009 at 4:43 pm

25 February 2009
It’s wrong to wish on space hardware

A number of satellite related issues have come up this weekend: The NSIDC reminded us that satellite sensors are (like all kinds of data) not perfectly reliable and do not last forever. Two satellites collided by accident last week, littering the orbit with dangerous amounts of debris. In San Diego this weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting with some of the Apollo astronauts and some of the scientists involved in Cassini and the Mars Phoenix missions. And yesterday morning we heard that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission launch failed to insert the satellite into orbit, and it is presumably measuring carbon dioxide somewhere at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Coincidentally, when it came up on the news, I was in a meeting with one of the scientists who had been working on setting up a climate model to assimilate the OCO data in order to pin down the carbon sinks.

All of these events have served to remind me at least, that although the space age is 50 years old, we are a long way from the point where we can take our ability to launch and control off-planet machines for granted. Getting into space was, and remains, a tremendous challenge. This makes the successes we’ve had all the more incredible, and a testament to the hard work the engineers and scientists do over many years before a launch to give the missions the best chance of success.

. February 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm

“t’s worth discussing a little what OCO was going to be useful for. It wasn’t because we don’t know the average amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and how much it’s increasing – that is actually pretty well characterised by the current station network (around 386 ppm growing at ~2ppm/year). However, the variations about the mean (tens of ppm) have a lot of extra information about the carbon cycle that are only coarsely resolved. The measurements would have been from nearer the surface than the AIRS data, and so closer to the sources and sinks. You would have been able to see point sources quite clearly and this would have been a good check on the national inventories of fossil fuel use, and may have been useful at constraining the rather uncertain deforestation contribution to the anthropogenic carbon dioxide sources. More importantly, the OCO data combined with inverse modelling might have helped with constraining the terrestrial sinks. We know they exist from residual calculations (what’s left over from knowing how much we are adding, and seeing how much is in the air and what is in the ocean), and they’ve mainly been associated with boreal ecosystems from the inverse modelling done so far, but there are quite large uncertainties (see 7.3.2 and fig 7.7 in AR4 Chp. 7). The Ibuki and AIRS data will help with this same issue, but OCO data would have been somewhat orthogonal.”

. February 26, 2009 at 11:19 am

Now what?
Advances in climate science took a nosedive in NASA satellite crash
Posted by Jonathan Hiskes

By now you’ve probably heard about NASA’s carbon-measuring satellite, the one that went kerplunk into the ocean near Antarctica in a disastrous launch attempt Tuesday morning. I was feeling bummed that my “gee, this is going to be really cool and useful” pre-launch story is now very much irrelevant. Then I realized NASA’s team of scientists and engineers, many of whom spent eight years on this mission, lost a whole lot more. And then I realized the biggest loss — in new scientific understanding — affects us all: rich, poor, young, old, threatened wildlife … the children.

Scientists hoped the Orbiting Carbon Observatory would lead to great advances in understanding the earth’s carbon sinks, the repositories of carbon dioxide no one has yet accounted for.

. February 27, 2009 at 10:30 am

26 February 09
DSCOVR Finally to Fly?

To recap, this fully completed $100 million climate observing spacecraft has so far sat in a box in Maryland for the last eight years. Dr Robert Park summed up the feeling of many in the scientific community when he described DSCOVR as “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”.

Why? DSCOVR would gaze back towards Earth from the unique vantage of one million miles towards the sun – an entirely new way doing space-based research.

. March 1, 2009 at 11:09 pm

“DSCOVR killed by Cheney” – NASA Insider

An unnamed source within NASA intimately familiar with the mothballed Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission spoke to Desmog Blog on the condition of anonymity.

The story is incredible.

The big question has always been: who would want to kill a $100 million fully completed climate satellite that has sat in a box since the 2000 presidential election – even though dozens of leading scientists have demanded it be launched?

. March 3, 2009 at 3:41 pm

NASA’s next challenge

The 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.

Milan October 28, 2009 at 11:02 am

The OCO isn’t the only situation where problems with American satelites might hamper climate science:

WITHOUT satellites, both forecasting the weather and studying the climate would be a lot harder than they are. Such satellites, however, need replacing from time to time, and those used by the Americans are coming to the end of their useful lives. Unfortunately, the plan for their replacement is in chaos. Indeed, the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, NPOESS, as the replacement system is known, has suffered so many delays and budget increases that its whole future is in doubt. If things go badly wrong, crucial data about the climate could be lost.

Any gap would be serious. To make data from the new satellites compatible with those collected by the old ones, the new instruments have to be calibrated against the old. That means both old and new satellites need to be active at the same time. Failure to make the calibration puts the continuity of the data series at risk, making climate models based on those data less reliable.

. November 17, 2009 at 2:23 pm

France in on satellite launch for climate change!
By jennhelgeson on Instanalysis

The groundbreaking Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission satellite was launched on 2 November 2009 from the Plesetsk cosmodrome. This Franco-Spanish satellite project makes it possible to measure soil moisture and ocean salinity from space for the first time. It is an example of how the French government is keen to address climate change, not just through legislation and through proposed carbon taxes, but by playing a major role climate change science.

Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the SMOS’ mission to measure soil moisture and the ocean salinity on a global scale. Until now it has not been possible to measure these aspects from space, even though the concept was first suggested 40 years ago. SMOS is a joint project between the Centre of National Space Studies (CNES) in France and the Centre for the Technological and Industrial Development (CDTI) in Spain. The mission was proposed in 1998 and is the outcome of novel uses of radio astronomy technology. In layman terms, to acquire data on soil moisture and ocean salinity, each of the antenna-receivers measures radiation emitted from Earth’s surface. The complex design of SMOS puts France and Spain onto the map for “space industry.”

The two parameters, soil moisture and ocean salinity, are of key scientific interest in better understanding the Earth’s water cycle and its relationship to climate change. Salinity directly influences ocean current circulation, which in turn provoke El Nino and La Nina phenomena. Specialists at CNES posit that the scientific feedback will provide a better understanding of the water cycle, allowing for advances in a wide range of fields, including: meteorology, risk management, marine resources, and urban development.

. June 7, 2014 at 11:13 am

In July 2014, NASA will launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) to study the fate of carbon dioxide worldwide. “Right now, the land and the ocean are taking up almost half of the carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but the future is fundamentally unknown,” said Paul Wennberg, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “OCO-2 is a key to getting answers.” The mission has been developed and is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

. May 1, 2019 at 2:40 pm

NASA was sold faulty aluminum in 19-year scam
The space agency linked it to two mission failures

NASA on Tuesday revealed that a pair of failed missions were caused by a 19-year aluminum scam.

The space agency previously said the 2009 Orbiting Carbon Observatory and 2011 Glory missions malfunctioned when the protective nose cones on the Taurus XL rockets failed to separate on command.

However, a joint investigation involving NASA and the Justice Department revealed that the problem was caused by aluminum extrusion maker Sapa Profiles, which falsified critical tests over 19 years.

Employees at the company’s Portland, Oregon, facilities tweaked failing tests so materials appeared to pass from 1996 to 2015, according to the Justice Department.

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