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NASA’s carbon-dioxide mission fails

24 Feb 2009 Michael Banks
The OCO : what should have happened

NASA’s first mission to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere has failed shortly after take-off earlier today. Officials said that the $270m Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) did not reach orbit and landed in the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica.

The OCO was launched at 09:55 GMT on a Taurus rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. However, 14 minutes after the launch, the Taurus rocket malfunctioned and the “fairing” — the part of the rocket that covers the satellite on top of the rocket — had failed to separate properly after launch so the satellite could not drift away in orbit.

The OCO was meant to orbit the Earth at an altitude of 705 km and produce “concentration” maps of carbon sources and sink throughout the world. The OCO would have provided samples of CO2 levels at around 34,000 locations as it orbited Earth once every 100 minutes.

As sunlight is reflected from the Earth’s surface, gases such as CO2 and oxygen absorb this light at specific wavelengths. The OCO was launched with three spectrometers tuned to detect changes in the intensity of this absorption.

The OCO was to be the sixth satellite to join the “A-train” — a set of seven Earth-observing satellites — which includes the CALIPSO and Cloudsat satellites looking at the levels of aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere and monitoring cloud formation that were both launched in April 2006.

In January, the Japanese space agency, JAXA, launched the world’s first satellite dedicated to monitoring greenhouse gas emissions. Named Ibuki, which means breath in Japanese, the satellite orbits 667 km above the Earth’s surface and has the sensitivity to detect changes in CO2 levels by around one part per million, which Ibuki will measure at 56,000 locations on the globe.


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