OCO Lost

Lost Chance to Measure Atmospheric Carbon

The launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (courtesy NASA).

The launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (courtesy NASA).

The news today about the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) failed to reach orbit and crashed into the ocean near Antartica is just too ironic. The OCO (the acronym is also a play on the chemical formula for carbon dioxide, CO2) was built to measure places where carbon dioxide is being emitted and absorbed on and around our planet. Antarctica is one of the bellweather places on Earth that atmospheric scientists study as they chart the effects of global warming. OCO would have taken measurements 30,000 times per orbit, including the atmosphere over Antarctica. That’s the kind of fine detail that scientists need in order to understand and model the complexity of our atmosphere as it soaks up more and more carbon dioxide.

This is a huge loss.  How is it that a fairing — the part that protects the payload on the way up out of Earth’s gravity well — could fail?  Human error?  Part failure?  Did a computer command fail?  No matter how it was caused, the loss of this satellite affects not just the scientists involved, but students who had designed experiments using the satellite, and — really — all of us.

Antarctica, from a NASA animation.

Antarctica, from a NASA animation.

Humans and our activities are the primary causes of excessive carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. That CO2 is part of the chain of events that are causing global warming. We need things like the OCO to help us understand the distribution, production, and absorption of CO2 if we are to make any definitive steps toward reducing the CO2 amounts we are pouring out each day from our automobiles, factories, power plants, and other polluting technologies. OCO is part of a larger effort to study and understand our planet — something we also do at other planets in order to understand their histories and environments. I hope that a replacement can be made for OCO — the knowledge it would have given us is information that we need.


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  1. This article has been added to the Astronomy Link List.

    Comment by Astronomy Link List — February 25, 2009 #

  2. Yes, it really is a tragic loss. However, didn’t the Japanese (jaxa) sent a similar spacecraft a few weeks ago?

    BTW, the payload fairing basically protects the spacecraft while the launch vehicle is still plowing though Earth’s atmosphere. Once ‘outside’ the atmosphere (i.e., once the atm. pressure is below some threshold), the fairing is jettisoned.

    Comment by changcho — February 26, 2009 #

  3. Are you talking about the Ibuki sat? The OCO satellite was a long time coming, they happened to overlap in development. IF OCO had made it to orbit, having two sats doing a wide array of atmospheric carbon measurements would provide incredibly detailed information more so than just having one — also allowing each to crosscheck the other — a good thing scientifically. I’m not completely familiar with IBUKI’s constraints and sensitivities, however.

    Yes, I know what the fairing does. My point was really that a fairing issue shouldn’t be a risk — it’s a well-developed technology. This is a mistake that could have been avoided unless there was some kind of damage during launch. Or, some human error (wilful or mistaken) in assembly of the stack. We’ll have to wait and see what the investigation committee comes up with.

    Comment by ccp — February 26, 2009 #

  4. Right, that’s it, it was Ibuki; more info here:


    Right, it’d have been much much better to have OCO as well. Best.

    Comment by changcho — February 27, 2009 #

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