NASA’s Carbon Observatory Crashes

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NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, intended to scan Earth’s surface for elusive carbon dioxide “sinks” in its atmosphere crashed today, after a launch failure.

The OCO was NASA’s first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide, and part of a $280 million programme to study global warming. However, the satellite failed to separate from the Taurus XL launch vehicle, apparently because the protective fairing failed to separate.

The loss of the satellite was a “huge disappointment,” said John Brunschwyler, project manager at Orbital Sciences, which built the rocket and satellite. The project was nine years in the making, according to the International Herald Tribune.

Carbon dioxide is the the most significant human-produced greenhouse gas and the principal human-produced driver of climate change. NASA planned to place the Orbiting Carbon Observatory into low orbit to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide, mapping the globe from space every 16 days for at least two years in search of human and natural carbon dioxide sources as well as the mysterious carbon dioxide “sinks,” the places where carbon dioxide is pulled out of the atmosphere and stored.

“Carbon capture” has increasingly become the main hope to alleviate global warming, by removing carbon from the emissions produced by humanity. However, the subject is little understood: scientists have determined that only about 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions remain in Earth’s atmosphere, but do not know where all the remaining 60 percent goes. About 30 percent of that remainder can be accounted for in Earth’s oceans – but the rest must be absorbed into other sinks somewhere on land.

“It’s critical that we understand the processes controlling carbon dioxide in our atmosphere today so we can predict how fast it will build up in the future and how quickly we’ll have to adapt to climate change caused by carbon dioxide buildup,” David Crisp, principal investigator for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Loaded with three high-resolution spectrometers, the OCO would have given scientists about 8 million measurements every two weeks. Each spectrometer was designed to pick up a different, narrow colour range, detecting light with the specific colours absorbed by carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen. The less carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere, the more light the spectrometers would have detected.

NASA had said the data from the 300-pound, $273.4 (£188.5) million OCO was critical to measuring global carbon dioxide distribution, allowing scientists to reduce uncertainties in predicting future carbon dioxide increases and make more accurate climate change predictions.

NASA notes, for instance, that more carbon appears to be taken up by coastal and terrestrial ecosystems in North America than in many other parts of the world. The OCO will help determine the specific roles that Alaska, Canada, the contiguous United States and Mexico are playing in this North American sink.

The OCO was launched from Space Launch Complex 576-E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on a Taurus XL 3110 launch vehicle, a rocket which hitherto had an 86 percent success rate, developed under the sponsorship of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).