NASA To Order Extra Carbon-mapping Instrument for Future Launch

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WASHINGTON — In a move meant to ensure uninterrupted satellite monitoring of a key global warming culprit through the decade ahead, NASA intends to order an extra flight instrument as it sets out to build a replacement for a carbon observing spacecraft lost last year to a launch mishap.

The instrument would be a copy of the high-resolution spectrometer NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is having built for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission the agency plans to launch in 2013 to map atmospheric carbon dioxide, one of several so-called greenhouse gases that trap heat near the Earth’s surface. The original OCO craft, built for around $200 million, plummeted into the ocean Feb. 24, 2009, when its Taurus XL launch vehicle’s payload fairing failed to separate.

Orbital Sciences Corp., the Dulles, Va.-based company that built and launched the first OCO, began work earlier this year on a second OCO spacecraft that NASA said in June it intends to launch in February 2013 aboard another Taurus XL rocket. The initial work, which Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski said currently consists of ordering long-lead items and putting subcontractors in place, is being funded out of the $50 million Congress earmarked in NASA’s 2010 budget late last year for the OCO reflight mission, dubbed OCO-2.

Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division, says the agency’s 2011 budget request includes sufficient funding to build OCO-2 and order an additional OCO instrument that would be available by 2015 to launch as part of someone else’s spacecraft.

That instrument could be called upon to help bridge a gap between OCO-2 and a more sophisticated laser-equipped carbon mapper targeted for a 2019 launch in NASA’s latest plans.


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“When we pitched this OCO-2 program to the president’s science adviser not quite a year ago, we told him that it was going to be a robustly spared program, including enough parts to build an OCO-3 instrument, although not a spacecraft or a launch vehicle. And indeed we received the funding that was necessary to do that,” Freilich told the NASA Advisory Council Science Committee during a July 13 public meeting here.

NASA requested $171 million in 2011 for OCO-2, and has budgeted a total of $330 million for the project over the next five years.

The original OCO included a single 135-kilogram instrument consisting of three high-resolution spectrometers designed to measure how carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen absorb sunlight reflected off the Earth’s surface. The instrument was built by Pomona, Calif.-based Hamilton Sundstrand Sensor Systems under a roughly $20 million contract awarded in 2002 by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has overall responsibility for the mission. Selected for development in 2002 under NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program, OCO was designed to be NASA’s first satellite built exclusively to map carbon dioxide levels on Earth and help scientists understand how humanity’s contribution of greenhouse gas is affecting global climate change. That job will now fall to OCO-2, which like the original craft will be launched into a near-polar, sun-synchronous orbit that would fly about 705 kilometers above Earth.

Freilich said NASA’s planned sequence of climate monitoring missions, which includes OCO-2, OCO-3 and the follow-on Active Sensing of CO2 Emissions over Nights, Days and Seasons (ASCENDS) satellite slated to launch in 2019, initiates a sustained global, spaceborne system for measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide and monitoring of natural sources and sinks.

“OCO-3 is needed to fill the potential gap in this critical data set between the OCO-2 and ASCENDS missions,” he said in a July 16 e-mail.

Ed Weiler, NASA associate administrator for science, said building an extra OCO instrument would allow NASA to respond quickly to offers from commercial firms or international partners looking to fill surplus capacity on flights of opportunity.

“Many times I’ll have people come in from company X, Y or Z saying ‘Hey, we’re launching a DirecTV satellite up to [geostationary orbit], we’ve got 200 kilograms available, we’d like to sell it to you for $20 million,’” he said in a July 14 interview, adding that NASA lacks the flexibility to respond quickly to such offers.

“It takes six months to get an [announcement of opportunity] out, it takes a year to make a selection, so I’ve never been able to take advantage of that kind of offer. And those offers are not uncommon,” he said.

Weiler said OCO-3 is an example of how NASA is evolving to be more flexible and responsive to such opportunities.

“Mike [Freilich] is doing something for the first time, and that is building instruments to have them ready so that we can take advantage, and the second instrument for OCO-2 is an example of that,” he said, adding that NASA will be soliciting ideas for instruments every year under the Earth science division’s new Earth Venture-1 program, a recently initiated Venture-class program of modestly priced, scientist-led missions.

“So we build up a stable, so to speak, to fill these opportunities the commercial world, or the international world, could offer us. Or even DoD, for that matter,” he said.