By Joel Achenbach and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
NASA and climate researchers are weighing their options after yesterday's crash of a new satellite designed to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide with unprecedented accuracy. A malfunction during the rocket ride toward space sent the Orbiting Carbon Observatory plummeting into the Indian Ocean near Antarctica.
"To say that it's extremely disappointing would be an understatement. This was a really important science mission," said a dismayed Edward J. Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for science.
Weiler said it was too soon to say whether NASA will attempt to launch a duplicate of the OCO, the initials of which are a nod to carbon dioxide's chemical structure: two atoms of oxygen and one atom of carbon. The satellite would have monitored not only the source points of CO2 emissions but also the carbon "sinks," such as forests and oceans, where carbon is taken out of the atmosphere.
Weiler noted that the stimulus package recently passed by Congress includes $400 million for Earth science research, but he added: "We have to find out how many leftover spare parts there are, how much it would take to put it together. We were obviously planning for success, not failure. We have to regroup."
The satellite, built by Dulles-based Orbital Sciences, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a Taurus XL rocket, also built by Orbital. In clear skies, it blazed toward space and appeared to be well on its way to joining a string of five Earth-observing satellites known as the A-Train.
"The mission is off to a great start!" NASA spokesman Steve Cole, who witnessed the launch at Vandenberg, wrote on a Twitter feed.
What went wrong with the $278 million mission will be the subject of a lengthy investigation, but Weiler said it appeared that the protective nose cone, known as the fairing, failed to separate from the satellite. With the extra mass still clinging to the satellite, the rocket did not have enough thrust to boost it into orbit, and the rocket and conjoined spacecraft fell back to Earth and slammed into the ocean.
"Everybody was really hanging their heads. It's a big loss. People were really jazzed about this and looking forward to this," Cole said in an interview. "We'll pick ourselves up and keep on moving. We're not stopping the global warming and carbon dioxide research because of this."
Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said that it would be possible, in theory, to build a replacement satellite in relatively short order. "If, in the event that NASA wanted a carbon copy of it, sure, we could build that pretty quickly for them," he said.
But he said the mission failure is a terrible loss for the NASA and Orbital engineers who spent years working on the satellite.
"It's always a risk in our business that these kinds of things happen. On the other hand, Orbital really had an exceptional record over the past decade," Beneski said. Before yesterday, Orbital had been involved in 57 space launches, he said, of which 56 were successful.
Maxmilian Auffhammer, an environmental economist at the University of California at Berkeley who analyzes greenhouse gas emissions from China, said he and other researchers were hoping the mission would give them a more precise sense of the world's carbon dioxide output.
"This would have given us a much easier way to plot these emissions on a much finer scale," he said.
Antonio Busalacchi, who directs the University of Maryland's Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, said the mission would have produced measurements "an order of magnitude" greater than current readings, which could have helped enforce a future global warming pact. The satellite would have made about 8 million observations every 16 days, compared with 100 during that time under traditional methods.
"Whatever approach we take to mitigation, there is a need for monitoring. Like in weapons control, it's 'Trust, but verify,' " he said.