The loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) in a Feb. 24 launch failure obviously is a significant blow to climate change research – one that calls for a carefully planned and coordinated effort to recover at least some of the measurements the spacecraft was designed to collect.
Flying a replacement mission based on the same basic design is but one of many possibilities to consider. Others include international collaboration, adjustments to NASA’s current queue of Earth science missions and some combination thereof.
The good news is that between the economic stimulus package recently signed into law by U.S. President BarackObama, which provides some $400 for NASA Earth science activities, and strong interest from Mr. Obama and the U.S. Congress in beefing up climate research in general, there should be resources available for whatever NASA decides to do.
The OCO was designed to make highly detailed maps of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which scientists believe is a major contributor to global warming. This information not only would identify sources of atmospheric carbon; it also would help locate sinks, features that, like oceans and forests, absorb carbon.
Launch failures are a part of the space business, and NASA will investigate the cause of this one and implement whatever corrective actions are necessary before entrusting another payload to the Taurus XL rocket that carried OCO. NASA’s Glory environmental monitoring craft is slated to launch atop a Taurus XL this coming fall.
Orbital Sciences Corp., which built the OCO satellite as well as the Taurus XL, says it could build a duplicate spacecraft relatively quickly, and some scientists already are pushing that option. But NASA should first take stock of its entire Earth science portfolio – from missions now on orbit to those on the drawing board – before choosing a path forward.
Though unique in key respects, OCO was viewed by scientists as a bridge between the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) aboard NASA’s Aqua spacecraft and the ASCENDS mission recommended by the U.S. National Research Council in its 2007 decadal survey on space-based Earth science. The AIRS sensor collects relatively coarse data; ASCENDS would be similar to OCO but features a laser- sounder for day-night operations.
Extending AIRS operations while accelerating ASCENDS appears attractive, but it should be noted that Aqua, launched in 2002, was designed to last only six years. NASA also should take a close look at what Japan’s Ibuki carbon monitoring satellite, which launched in January, has to offer as a near- term stopgap measure.
Yet another possibility is working with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which received a substantial sum in the stimulus package for Earth science and is a partner on the next generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites. Those satellites have extra payload capacity due to a program restructuring that scrapped many of their climate monitoring capabilities.
In the immediate aftermath of the OCO’S loss, Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, said: “What we’re going to do is take a good, solid and thoughtful look at how best to advance Earth system science in general, and with a focus on the carbon cycle, given all the assets that we have available now and into the near future.”
That statement is an encouraging indication that NASA is not about to rush into anything without a thorough examination of all options. But given the urgency of the climate change issue, and the critical role OCO was to play in understanding the phenomenon, NASA should set an aggressive schedule for coming up with a recovery plan. A good place to start would be to check back with the National Research Council to see if the loss of OCO changes the order of priorities laid out in the Earth science decadal survey.