After Launch Delay, NASA Carbon Observatory Reaches Orbit

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 — a copy of a satellite destroyed in a launch mishap in 2009 — reached orbit July 2 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket launched at 5:56 a.m. EDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

NASA Launch Services Program Manager Tim Dunn confirmed about an hour after launch that OCO-2’s solar arrays had deployed as planned and were generating power.

OCO-2 had been scheduled to launch July 1, but ULA scrubbed the attempt when water jets that protect the Delta 2 rocket’s launch pad failed to come on line in the final minute before scheduled liftoff. This so-called pulse suppression system at Space Launch Complex 2, last used for a launch in October 2011, was fixed in time to loft OCO-2 ahead of the July 4 U.S. holiday.

OCO-2 was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, as part of NASA’s Earth Systems Science Pathfinder program. The spacecraft’s single instrument, built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is based on the three-channel spectrometer built for the original OCO satellite by Hamilton Sundstrand of Pomona, California.

The first OCO was destroyed in 2009 when its Orbital Sciences Taurus launcher crashed into the sea after a fairing separation failure. When NASA lost a second climate-observing satellite, Glory, to a similar Taurus failure in 2011, the agency yanked its OCO-2 launch contract and booked a Delta 2 as part of a $412 million, three-rocket deal with ULA.

OCO-2 will measure global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from a near-polar, sun-synchronous orbit roughly 700 kilometers above sea level. Its two-year primary mission is set to begin 45 days after launch.

Carbon dioxide measurements made by OCO-2 will be supplemented with data gathered by aircraft and ground stations to create a global map that pinpoints locations where carbon dioxide is emitted and absorbed. NASA says the data will contribute to a better understanding of global climate change. Including spacecraft design, launch and two years of operations, OCO-2 is costing NASA $467.7 million, according to a press kit distributed online ahead of the launch.

How NASA will continue global carbon measurements after OCO-2’s primary mission is yet to be decided. As part of the 2015 budget request unveiled in March, the White House put OCO-3, which was to be built from OCO-2 spare parts and flown as a hosted instrument on the international space station, on indefinite hold.

For now,“[t]he current designs and OCO-2 spare hardware will be stored and held in reserve for potential future application as the measurements from the OCO-2 satellite are made and analyzed,” the White House wrote in its 2015 NASA budget request.

Even after the loss of the first OCO, NASA was going to give Orbital Sciences a chance to launch OCO-2 aboard a Taurus XL, the ground-launched version of the company’s air-launched Pegasus rocket. However, after another Taurus fairing failure destroyed Glory, NASA entrusted OCO-2 to ULA.

When Denver-based ULA took Delta 2 out of production, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture still had parts enough for five more of the medium-launch rockets. Four of those have now been booked by NASA’s Earth Science Division: OCO-2; the Soil Moisture Active Passive spacecraft launching in October; the Joint Polar Satellite System-1, which NASA is building to launch in November 2016 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and IceSat-2, another NASA Earth Science satellite. IceSat 2 overran its budget in 2013, and NASA is now in the middle of a mission replan that includes a new launch date. The last Delta 2 is still up for grabs.