Lost Chance to Measure Atmospheric Carbon
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.
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.