February 27, 2009

Canada orbiter gauges CO2 like failed OCO

A $278 million NASA satellite that crashed into the Antarctic waters in a failed launch was a larger version of a $300,000 Canadian satellite, a scientist says.

An 8-pound, milk-carton-size microsatellite called CanX-2, launched by the University of Toronto in India last April, monitors how carbon dioxide enters and exits the Earth's atmosphere, just as NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory was designed to do, York University space engineering Director Brendan Quine said.

York engineers made a wavelength-measuring microspectrometer aboard the tiny satellite.

In particular, CanX-2 searches for missing carbon dioxide, or CO2 that humans produce but that scientists can't account for, Quine said.

The measurement principle is almost exactly the same as the one for the OCO, although the instruments are not exactly commensurate, Quine told the Ottawa Citizen.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's OCO lifted off on schedule Tuesday from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base aboard a four-stage Taurus XL rocket. But about 3 minutes later, a nose cone failed to separate as commanded.

The satellite fell to Earth, crashing into the ocean just short of Antarctica.

It's very sad when you lose a spacecraft, but it also means that we are the only people in orbit with 1-kilometer (6-10ths of a mile) resolution on the ground, Quine said.

From 435 miles above Earth, CanX-2 analyzes how much carbon dioxide is in a particular place, Quine said. If it flies over an area where CO2 levels have dropped below average, it indicates that this may be where the gas is being absorbed, he said.

The betting is that oceans are involved, either by soaking up carbon dioxide or because ocean life absorbed it, Quine said to the Citizen.