NASA Gearing Up To Replace Orbiting Carbon Observatory

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SAN FRANCISCO — If the U.S. Congress approves plans in President Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request to rebuild the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), a climate- monitoring satellite that crashed into the ocean one year ago, the new spacecraft could be launched in early 2013, said David Crisp, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s principal investigator for the original OCO mission.

While the cost and schedule for the new mission will be discussed when program officials hold a formal kickoff meeting at NASA headquarters in Washington later this month, the OCO team already is drafting plans to identify long-lead items and purchase as many of those items as possible with $50 million appropriated for the new OCO program by Congress in the 2010 budget.

“If we can start on Oct. 1, we would be ready to launch in January or February of 2013,” Crisp said. It takes about 28 months to buy the parts, build the instrument and spacecraft, integrate the satellite with the rocket and test it, he added.

The satellite bus for OCO-2 would be built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., which also manufactured OCO. Orbital Sciences also would integrate the instrument with the spacecraft, conduct prelaunch testing of the complete observatory and verify on-orbit operations, Crisp said. The satellite’s three high-resolution spectrometers, however, would be constructed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and not by Hamilton Sundstrand Sensor Systems of Pomona, Calif., the firm that built the original instrument.

“For the original mission, Hamilton Sundstrand made its most significant contributions in instrument design,” Crisp said. “They also procured most of the components and integrated and tested the electronics prior to their delivery to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory was primarily responsible for the integration of the instrument’s optics, structure and thermal system, and for prelaunch instrument testing and calibration.”

Because OCO-2 would be almost identical to OCO, Hamilton Sundstrand would play a much smaller role but would still be involved because of “their insight into the instrument design philosophy and their good working relationship with their component vendors,” Crisp said.

The OCO-2 spectrometers are designed to measure carbon dioxide and oxygen molecules in the Earth’s atmosphere based on the way those molecules absorb sunlight. Scientists hope to use that data to pinpoint regions of approximately 1,000 square kilometers where human and natural sources produce carbon dioxide and to highlight areas where oceans and forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Like OCO, OCO-2 is expected to circle the Earth every 99 minutes, mapping the globe every 16 days.

NASA officials have not determined whether OCO-2 would launch on an Orbital Sciences Taurus XL rocket like OCO. Several launch options are under consideration, and mission officials anticipate a decision in the near future, Crisp said. The original OCO spacecraft was destroyed in February 2009 when a payload fairing on a Taurus XL rocket failed to detach.

In contrast to the OCO mission, which was led by a principal investigator, OCO-2 would be a NASA-directed mission. NASA headquarters officials would select the lead center for the mission. That center’s director then would select a project manager to oversee cost, schedule and performance, as well as a project scientist, Crisp said. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s OCO-2 proposal calls for Crisp to act as the science team leader.

Since OCO’s launch failure, the position the satellite was expected to occupy as the leader in the A-train, the afternoon constellation of Earth-observing satellites flying in formation around the globe, has been claimed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Global Change Observation Mission-Water, which is scheduled for launch in 2011. The second location favored by the OCO-2 team, right behind the U.S.-French cloud-observing CALIPSO satellite, is expected to be filled by NASA’s Glory climate-monitoring spacecraft, which is scheduled for launch in late 2010. “We’re currently in the process of working with A-train missions to determine where in the A-train OCO-2 could insert and maintain an orbit,” Crisp said.

OCO-2 is only one of the Earth Science missions expected to benefit from the Obama administration’s budget request. On Feb. 1, the president sent a budget to Congress that included $1.8 billion for Earth Science in 2011, a 27 percent increase over the division’s 2010 funding level.

In addition to OCO, the Earth Science Division plans to expand and accelerate its Venture-class program of $100 million to $200 million missions designed to support focused, scientific investigations, Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told reporters during a Feb. 2 teleconference. The Venture-class program — a high-priority recommendation of the Decadal Survey, a 10-year plan for space-based observations drafted by the National Academy of Science — began last fall when NASA solicited proposals for airborne science campaigns.

Because airborne observation programs are much less costly than space-based ones, NASA will be able to fund several of the proposed Venture-class investigations, Michael Freilich, Earth Science Division director, said in Dec. 17 during an American Geophysical Union conference here. Following the airborne program, space agency officials plan to solicit proposals for space-based instruments to fly on missions of opportunity, Freilich added.