NASA's Earth System Science Pathfinder Project suffered a severe setback when the most recent satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to achieve orbit and crashed into the ocean near Antarctica not long after liftoff. The fairing surrounding the orbiter on the Taurus rocket apparently failed to separate, which prevented the vehicle from reaching its intended orbit.
The OCO was intended to specifically measure atmospheric CO2 levels in order to provide scientists with a better picture of what is happening in Earth's atmosphere and collect specific information about carbon dioxide sources (where it comes from) and sinks (where it is pulled out of the atmosphere and stored). The OCO was to have collected 8 million measurements every 16 days.
To even out the measurements since CO2 levels fluctuate at different times of day, the OCO was intended to orbit the Earth in a "sun synchronous polar orbit" which would have the vehicle traveling from pole to pole in order to sweep the entire globe, and would take measurements at approximately 1PM local time across the entire planet.
Launching satellites is still a difficult process, and while space science vehicles have become commonplace, this event reminds us of the difficulty in getting vehicles into space. Unfortunately, the information about the atmosphere this spacecraft would have supplied will now be delayed by several years, at least. It is, of course, too early for NASA to have any plans about replacing the vehicle. But the information it would provide is important, and a replacement should be considered at the earliest opportunity.
written by UK Dissertation, May 10, 2012
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