Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)

The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly, in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)
The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)

In the early hours of this morning at 1:55am PST, a carbon dioxide monitoring mission was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was being carried into a 700 km polar orbit by a Taurus XL rocket. Unfortunately, 12 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, the rocket upper stage suffered an anomaly, and the fairing failed to separate. Although it appears the rocket attained the desired altitude The vehicle did not attain the desired altitude and the $270 million satellite was doomed, trapped inside the the nose cone. The upper stage fairing was protecting the OCO as it ascended through the atmosphere; once in space it should have separated, peeled off and dropped away. That didn’t happen.

Update (12:05pm): The Taurus XL upper stage was too heavy for its booster to take the OCO into orbit. The still-attached fairing added an unforeseen mass to the vehicle, causing it to take a sub-orbital trajectory. According to the NASA press conference, the OCO plus Taurus XL upper stage fell into the ocean near the Antarctic coast.

This is Taurus launch control. It appears that we have had a launch contingency. We don’t have the exact nature of the loss of mission, but NASA launch director Chuck Dovale has directed that the launch contingency plan be implemented. We will try to bring you any additional information as soon as we have it.NASA launch commentator George Diller

NASAs OCO launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 1:55 am PST (NASA TV)
NASAs OCO launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 1:55 am PST (NASA TV)

The OCO was going to be a part of NASA’s continuing effort to monitor human impacts on our planet. First and foremost is the effect of carbon dioxide emissions from human activity, and indeed natural sources (forest fires, volcanic activity etc.), on climate change. The OCO would have been an unprecedented attempt at understanding carbon sources and sinks for at least two years, collecting 8 million precise atmospheric measurement over 16 day periods, to see temporal and spatial changes in the greenhouse gas. We need missions such as the OCO to increase our understanding of where carbon is generated and where it is most effectively scrubbed from the atmosphere.

Watch the Taurus XL launch video »

Average global temperatures continue to rise with increasing carbon dioxide levels from human activity on the planet. Unfortunately, we have little understanding about how much CO2 is too much CO2, so it is essential we use space-based observatories like OCO to gather orbital data about how Earth naturally deals with carbon emissions. We know our biosphere is reaching localized “tipping points” (where there can be sudden, irreversible changes in weather systems for example), but how much carbon dioxide can our atmosphere take before the damage gets any worse? Can we reverse this damage? Or have we already passed a global tipping point?

Alas, the loss of this sophisticated carbon observatory is a heavy blow for atmospheric monitoring; the data would have been very useful to help us find answers to global warming and associated climate change.

For more, check out Orbiting Carbon Observatory Launch Failure on the Universe Today.

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