Launch failure dooms environmental satellite, research project

Two hundred eighty million dollars and ten years of research and technology crashed into the ocean near Antarctica early this morning. Engineers helped design the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, a satellite, to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and answer nagging questions about global warming. KPCC's Brian Watt reports.

Brian Watt: When the Taurus XL spacecraft carries a satellite into space, a fairing (or clamshell-like shroud) protects it as it moves through the earth's atmosphere. The fairing is supposed to break loose minutes after launch. But, Taurus Program Manager John Brunschwyler told a NASA press conference, that didn't happen after this Taurus lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

John Brunschwyler: When it separates off, you get a jump in acceleration. We did not have that jump in acceleration. As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit.

Watt: So, said Brunschwyler, the spacecraft fell into the ocean just short of Antarctica and took the Orbiting Carbon Observatory with it.

Caltech's Paul Wennberg is on the Observatory's "science team." He watched the launch and told KPCC's "AirTalk" that its failure is a giant blow to environmental research. The Observatory's task was to measure emissions of carbon dioxide (or C02) in the atmosphere. Its three spectrometers would survey the earth and "image" the sunlight.

Paul Wennberg: You can then detect the absorption of the sunlight that's scattered off of the earth and thereby quantify how much CO2 was between the sun, the surface of the earth, and then reflected back to space.

David Biello, who writes about the environment for Scientific American magazine, says the observatory would have helped scientists find the atmosphere's biggest sources of greenhouse gases and locate the "sinks."

David Biello: "Sinks" are kind of the areas where more CO2 is being pulled out of the atmosphere than is going back into it. If you think of the earth as kind of breathing, this would be the carbon dioxide "inhale" as it were.

Watt: Scientists are concerned that the sinks could fill up. They'd also just like to know where all the CO2 we earthlings are emitting ends up. Right now, Biello says, scientists can account for two-thirds of the 30 billion metric tons of CO2 we put out. That leaves a heck of a lot of the light, colorless, odorless gas out there. Biello says the observatory would have helped to track it.

Biello: It could be that forests in Africa and South America are sucking up more carbon dioxide than we think. It could be that oceans are absorbing more than we think. We just don't know, because we only have these kind of ground observation stations to rely on.

Watt: A Japanese satellite launched last month is also measuring carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Caltech's Paul Wennberg says scientists in the United States will try to use that data for the studies they'd planned. But for now, he and his colleagues are mourning the loss of their satellite.

Wennberg: They have just essentially put their all into this for a decade now. And we could do it certainly faster the second time; we now know many things. Of course, you can essentially replicate the instrument if we chose to do that.

Watt: That would still take several years, and lots more money.