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NASA’s Carbon Observatory Fails To Reach Orbit

February 24, 2009

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to reach orbit after liftoff Tuesday morning.

The satellite took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California just before 2 a.m., but the Taurus XL launch rocket’s fairing – a clamshell structure that encapsulates the satellite as it travels through the atmosphere – failed to separate, according to preliminary reports from NASA. 

During a press briefing, NASA said the error occurred during the burning of the second stage. The third and fourth stages ignited as planned, according to the agency, but the weight of the clamshell prohibited the OCO from reaching orbit.

“We could not make orbit,” said John Brunschwyler, Taurus project manager for Orbital Sciences Corp., which built the rocket and satellite, adding that indications state that the satellite “landed just short of Antarctica, in the ocean.”

Brunschwyler said officials were “fairly confident” as to the location of the failed craft.

“We constantly take altitude, velocity measurements, and we’ve had, I think several different predictions come to the same conclusion,” Brunschwyler said in a press briefing.

“We’ll know more tomorrow ““ a more accurate location, but we’re fairly certain that it did not overfly any land, and it landed just short of Antarctica.”

The failure now marks the second in eight launches of the Taurus XL for Orbital Sciences.

The $278 million OCO was intended to study the sources of carbon dioxide as well as carbon sinks – where it is absorbed in the oceans and forests. Previous information has suggested that these sinks could be spilling what has been absorbed back into the air.

“Observations of the location, amount and rate of carbon dioxide emission into the air, as well as the stock and flow of all forms of carbon on land and in the ocean, will be needed to manage such a world market fairly and efficiently.”

Scientists said the satellite would take 8 million carbon dioxide measurements every 16 days, greatly improving on the current limited information from ground-based carbon dioxide monitoring efforts.

Last month, Japan launched its first carbon-monitoring satellite.

Carbon dioxide is the leading cause of global warming. Humans are responsible for two percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Emission levels before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution were near 280 parts per million. Today, the level is 387ppm with no expectation of decreasing anytime soon.

“If the nations of the world take serious action to limit the use of fossil fuels, the right to emit carbon dioxide will become scarcer, and emission rights would become an increasingly valuable traded commodity,” said Phil DeCola, a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and former Orbiting Carbon Observatory program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Observations of the location, amount and rate of carbon dioxide emission into the air, as well as the stock and flow of all forms of carbon on land and in the ocean, will be needed to manage such a world market fairly and efficiently.”

“The mission is lost,” NASA spokesman Steve Cole told Bloomberg from the launch site.

“It’s a huge disappointment for the entire team who have worked very hard for years and years and years,” NASA Launch Director Chuck Dovale said in a briefing from California. “Even when you do your very best, you can still fail.”

NASA said it will convene an investigation board to determine the root causes of the failure.

“I’m confident that integrated team will do a thorough investigation and determine the cause,” said Dovale. “We’ll get back to flying at a pace that allows us to do so successfully.”

“Certainly for the science community, it’s a huge disappointment,” Brunschwyler said in response to a question about how much loss was incurred, adding that there was great anticipation before the launch for the “groundbreaking spacecraft to measure what is in the forefront of every newspaper. It’s taken so long to get here.”

Image 1: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory and its Taurus booster lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. A contingency was declared a few minutes later. Image credit: NASA TV

Image 2: Artist’s concept of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Image credit: NASA/JPL

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