NASA Reviving Effort To Put Spare Orbiting Carbon Observatory Sensor on ISS


SAN FRANCISCO — With funding in the 2016 omnibus spending bill approved by House and Senate appropriators, NASA will be able to revive Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, a dormant effort to measure carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

The OCO-3 program,  using an instrument leftover from NASA’s campaign to build the free-flying Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 launched in 2014, will track carbon dioxide from its perch on the exterior of the International Space Station.

NASA's Michael Freilich presenting at the Group on Earth Observations meeting in Geneva in January 2014. Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva
NASA’s Michael Freilich presenting at the Group on Earth Observations meeting in Geneva in January 2014. Credit: U.S. Mission Geneva

The project, which was on hold due to a lack of funding, is back in the budget because NASA’s Earth Science Division will receive nearly eight percent more money in 2016 than it did in 2015 if the congressional budget pact is signed by President Barack Obama. “We hopefully will launch OCO-3 in the 2018 timeframe,” Michael Freilich, NASA’s Earth Science Division director said Dec. 16 during his annual Town Hall meeting at the American Geophysical Union conference here.

It’s a timely programmatic change given the recently concluded United Nations COP 21 climate conference, the Paris meeting where NASA representatives used a high-resolution Hyperwall in the U.S. section of the venue to share the space agency’s observations on the changing climate.

NASA’s Earth observation capabilities will play a role in helping international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the wake of the conference, although it is too early to say exactly what that role will be, said Jack Kaye, NASA Earth science associate director for research, who attended the Paris meeting. “The science we have been doing leaves us well-positioned to contribute in a significant way to what is going to happen internationally,” he said.

Freilich added that NASA is “uniquely suited to accurately and transparently monitor all aspects of the Earth system. We are often the credible and open provider of information to show policymakers if policies are working or not.”

If the new NASA budget is signed into law, the Earth Science Division will receive $1.92 billion in 2016 compared with $1.77 billion appropriated in 2015. That money will allow NASA to begin building one or two space station instruments to demonstrate key technologies of the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory, a high-priority mission identified in the Earth Science Decadal Survey of 2007. Those instruments could be sent to the space station “perhaps as soon as 2019,” Freilich said.

NASA plans to launch three Earth science missions in 2016, including two space station instruments. A Lightning Imaging Sensor and Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE)-3 are scheduled to travel to the space station on a cargo flight in June 2016. Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, the third mission scheduled for launch in 2016, is an Earth Venture-class mission that will use eight small satellites to form a constellation to study the evolution of winds in tropical cyclones

Congress has provided NASA’s Earth Science Division with relatively stable funding in recent years, which is enabling the agency to launch approximately two Earth science missions per year. “That helped us get our Earth observation constellation onto a more robust footing so it is not as geriatric as it was before,” Freilich said.

Landsat 8
Artist’s concept of the Landsat 8 satellite NASA launched in February 2013. Credit: Orbital ATK


That stable funding also is enabling NASA to make long-term plans to continue to provide Earth observation through the 42-year-old Landsat program.

In 2015, NASA began the Landsat 9 program, which is similar to the Landsat 8 spacecraft launched in 2013 but has an improved thermal infrared sensor.

That spacecraft is scheduled to launch by 2023, Freilich said. NASA also is investing in technology to develop improved land imaging instruments for future spacecraft.

“If we are going to have a multi-decadal, multi-mission land-imaging program, we have to be able to infuse technology in it over the years in such as way that does not introduce risk to the long-term continuity of the program, but also so that 20 years from now we are not flying today’s technology,” Freilich said.