Rebuild the Orbiting Carbon Observatory

Morty and a blue wine glass

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

25 thoughts on “Rebuild the Orbiting Carbon Observatory”

  1. He looks a bit harrowed by your attention.

    In fact, the whole scene has a feeling of impending doom to it. The hovering wine glass shadow threateningly positioned, the plaintive look, the urging hand.

    The unusual overexposure in a trend of properly exposed photographs.

    Was it taken in unusual haste?


    Rousing. Tremendous pathos. Morty could be Lear, or Agamemnon on the cusp of strangulation.

    Or perhaps, just a generic character in a suspense thriller written by Stephen King.

  2. Also, I hope they relaunch the Orbcarbob. Orbiting.. carbon.. observ..


  3. Was it taken in unusual haste?

    It was less a matter of haste and more a matter of interesting framing. I have other, better exposed, photos from last night but they are not so interesting in composition. They certainly wouldn’t make anyone think of Lear or Agamemnon.

  4. it wasn’t destroyed due to a faulty booster, the payload fairing failed to separate, adding too much mass to the satellite for orbit insertion.

  5. The way I see it, the fairing is part of the rocket (i.e. the booster), rather than part of the satellite. No doubt, the people who designed the Taurus engines and fuel tanks were also annoyed to see someone else’s error ruin their work.

  6. Gravity satellite heads skyward
    By Jonathan Amos
    Science reporter, BBC News, Frascati

    By combining gravity data with information about sea-surface height gathered by other spacecraft, scientists will be able to track the direction and speed of ocean currents.

    Understanding better how the seas move heat around the planet will help improve the computer models that are used to forecast global climate change.

  7. According to Nature, NASA is considering rebuilding the OCO.

    “So — as expected — the bottom line of the report by Crisp’s committee, submitted to NASA on 2 April, was that the agency should build an OCO “Carbon Copy” with the same design and instruments and launch it as soon as possible.”

    Actually doing so depends on finding the necessary funding.

  8. NASA will replace failed carbon dioxide-tracking satellite (04/23/2009)

    Lauren Morello, E&E reporter

    NASA is moving forward with plans to replace a carbon dioxide-monitoring satellite that crashed in February, a space agency official said yesterday.

    “We’re investigating recovery options,” Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, said yesterday at a House Science and Technology Committee hearing.

    Earlier this month, an advisory panel of climate scientists recommended that the space agency produce a second satellite based on the original OCO blueprint or plan a “functionally equivalent mission,” Freilich said.

    NASA is now examining the pros and cons of two different options, a process the agency hopes to finish by the end of May, said Freilich. They include rebuilding the original OCO or creating a “near-copy” of the OCO’s scientific instrument plus a thermal infrared sensor, which the agency would launch on a single spacecraft.

    But the NASA official did not offer details about potential costs for those options, nor whether the agency would dip into the $400 million it received for Earth science in recent economic stimulus legislation.

  9. 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.

  10. US Climate Satellite Capabilities In Jeopardy

    “The United States is in danger of losing its ability to monitor key climate variables from satellites, according to a new Government Accountability Office report. The country’s Earth-observing satellite program has been underfunded for a decade, and the impact of the lack of funds is finally hitting home. The GAO report found that capabilities originally slated for two new Earth-monitoring programs, NPOESS and GOES-R, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense, have been cut, and adequate plans to replace them do not exist. Meanwhile, up until six months ago, NASA had 15 functional Earth-sensing satellites. Two of them went down in the past year, and of the remaining 13, 12 are past their design lifetimes. Only seven may be functional by 2016, said Waleed Abdalati, a longtime NASA satellite scientist now teaching at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Taken together, American scientists will soon find themselves without the ability to monitor changes to key Earth systems at a time when such measurements could help determine the paths of the world’s energy and transportation systems.”

  11. Pingback: The loss of Glory
  12. Science Satellite’s Crash Leaves NASA ‘Devastated’ — and Flummoxed

    A NASA satellite designed to study aerosols’ influence on climate and measure solar energy failed to reach orbit this morning. The crash marks the second time in two years that a NASA climate satellite has failed to launch.

    A similar problem with the Taurus XL rocket’s fairing caused the launch failure of another satellite, the $273 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory, in February 2009. That was the last time NASA used the Taurus XL as a launch vehicle (ClimateWire, Feb. 25, 2009).

    Orbital Sciences Corp. subsequently modified the fairing design, based on analyses by a NASA panel that reviewed the OCO launch failure.

    The original version of the Taurus rocket used hot, pressurized gas to break frangible joints that hold the fairing in place, beginning a process that ends when pistons push the fairing pieces away and the satellite moves into orbit.

    The revised version used in today’s Glory launch used cold, compressed nitrogen gas to break those frangible joints. Orbital Sciences Corp. uses the same system in its Minotaur rocket, which has launched successfully three times in the last year.

    The failure of the Glory launch may have broader implications, both for NASA’s plans to launch a copy of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and for its overall budget.

    The satellite, known as OCO-2, is being prepared for launch in February 2013 aboard the same type of Taurus XL rocket used with Glory. Today’s launch failure suggests the space agency may have to revisit those plans, a move likely to add to OCO-2’s total cost.

    Meanwhile, larger budget questions loom.

    The Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed two years ago when NASA was flush with money from economic stimulus legislation. But the failure to launch Glory comes days after Congress and the White House agreed to a stopgap spending bill that narrowly averted a government shutdown.

  13. Investigations have been launched into why NASA’s Glory satellite failed to reach orbit and crashed into the Pacific Ocean on Friday.

    The environmental research satellite lifted off aboard a Taurus XL rocket around 2:10 a.m. PT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

    However, it appears the protective shell or fairing over the satellite in the nose of the rocket failed to separate as expected, NASA reported. That meant the satellite did not have the velocity it needed to reach orbit around Earth.

    “Indications are that the satellite and rocket … [are] in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere,” NASA launch director Omar Baez said Friday at a news conference.

    NASA believes the satellite could not have survived the crash in useable condition, spokeswoman Sarah DeWitt told CBC News.

    The U.S. space agency is currently trying to get more telemetry data to pinpoint the satellite’s location before attempting to recover it.

    NASA officials believe it landed near Antarctica, close to where another NASA environmental satellite crashed during a similar mishap in 2009. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory had also been aboard a Taurus XL, and its fairing also failed to separate.

  14. Earth-observation satellites
    Something to watch over us
    The Earth should be monitored more carefully

    ON APRIL 8th Envisat, Europe’s largest Earth-observing satellite, unexpectedly stopped talking to its users on the Earth below. Since then those users have been frantically trying to re-establish contact. They rely on Envisat’s radars and other sensors for a wide range of measurements, from the temperature of the oceans to the chemistry of the stratosphere. Scientists have used it to gauge ocean conditions for shipping and to investigate earthquakes; its data have been the basis of thousands of scientific papers.

    Envisat had, unlike much of Europe, forgone early retirement: designed for five years of operation, it was on its tenth. Given its advanced years, you would think that planning for its eventual end would be well in hand. You would expect that successor instruments would already be in orbit, their measurements carefully cross-correlated with Envisat’s so that the elucidation of the scope and pace of global environmental change could continue seamlessly. You would be wrong.

  15. In the years between OCO’s demise and OCO-2’s launch it has turned out that, as well as measuring carbon-dioxide levels, the spacecraft can also measure photosynthesis directly. The molecular machinery which uses sunlight to make energy-rich carbon compounds relies on chlorophyll to collect the sunshine in the first place. The flow of energy from the chlorophyll into the rest of the machinery has to be regulated carefully, and part of the process of regulation is for the plant to emit surplus energy by letting the chlorophyll fluoresce. Measurements of fluorescence made in laboratories provide a powerful way of seeing into the leaf and monitoring its molecular behaviour.

    In the past couple of years researchers have found that instruments like those on OCO-2, designed to measure the abundance of gases by detecting the wavelengths at which they absorb infrared light, can pick up some of this fluorescence. Indeed it is a source of noise that the people making the gas measurements need to understand in order to get their results. Data from satellites with instruments similar to OCO-2’s have recently made possible broad assessments of where photosynthesis is going on most vigorously (America’s corn belt, unsurprisingly). Applied to the more copious and specific data from OCO-2, these techniques will allow precise mapping of photosynthesis, as well as of net carbon flows. That should allow researchers to estimate the amount of carbon being taken up by plants, and thus infer the rate of respiration in the same area. This will greatly improve models of how the carbon cycle works both in specific places and globally.

  16. Scientists suspected the 2015-16 El Nino — one of the largest on record — was responsible, but exactly how has been a subject of ongoing research. Analyzing the first 28 months of data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite, researchers conclude impacts of El Nino-related heat and drought occurring in tropical regions of South America, Africa and Indonesia were responsible for the record spike in global carbon dioxide. The findings are published in the journal Science Friday as part of a collection of five research papers based on OCO-2 data.

    “These three tropical regions released 2.5 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere than they did in 2011,” said Junjie Liu of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is lead author of the study. “Our analysis shows this extra carbon dioxide explains the difference in atmospheric carbon dioxide growth rates between 2011 and the peak years of 2015-16. OCO-2 data allowed us to quantify how the net exchange of carbon between land and atmosphere in individual regions is affected during El Nino years.” A gigaton is a billion tons.

    In eastern and southeastern tropical South America, including the Amazon rainforest, severe drought spurred by El Nino made 2015 the driest year in the past 30 years. Temperatures also were higher than normal. These drier and hotter conditions stressed vegetation and reduced photosynthesis, meaning trees and plants absorbed less carbon from the atmosphere. The effect was to increase the net amount of carbon released into the atmosphere.

    In contrast, rainfall in tropical Africa was at normal levels, based on precipitation analysis that combined satellite measurements and rain gauge data, but ecosystems endured hotter-than-normal temperatures. Dead trees and plants decomposed more, resulting in more carbon being released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, tropical Asia had the second-driest year in the past 30 years. Its increased carbon release, primarily from Indonesia, was mainly due to increased peat and forest fires — also measured by satellite instruments.

  17. They rebuilt it. It’s in space. You can see a rendering of it in awesome free software from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory!

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