After carbon observatory crashes, scientists ask, 'What's next?'

This story was updated at 12:44 p.m. on Feb. 25.

Nine years of work disappeared in five minutes yesterday when a NASA satellite crashed into the icy waters near Antarctica. Now climate scientists who worked on the ambitious effort to map the world's carbon dioxide are trying to figure out what comes next.

The $278 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory was designed to monitor how CO2 enters and exits the Earth's atmosphere -- hoping to yield a picture of a rhythm that is much like taking a breath. Forests and oceans absorb the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, while burning fossil fuels and decaying plant and animal life send more back.

There is a delicate balance between the two processes that shifts with seasons and weather patterns -- plants, for example, pull in more CO2 in spring than in winter, when many lose their leaves.

But while scientists have a basic understanding of the carbon cycle, they can't account for all the CO2 humans produce, said Scott Denning, a professor at Colorado State University who worked on the NASA project's science team. "The basic idea is that between the oceans and the land, about half of the fossil-fuel carbon dioxide is being taken up and not going into the air," he said. "We need to understand that better to predict what's going to happen in the future."

The crash yesterday morning of NASA's carbon observatory is going to make getting those answers more difficult, scientists said.

Airplanes, weather balloons and ground-monitoring stations can measure how much CO2 is in the air at certain points, but they can't cover the whole globe like a satellite would. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, for example, was designed to collect 8 million measurements every day for at least two years.

Using only measurements of CO2 levels taken from the Earth's surface is like trying to map New York City by standing in the middle of Manhattan, said Paul Wennberg, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who operates a series of ground-based measuring stations. "You get an idea there are streets and buildings, but it's very hard to imagine what the broader image looks like," he said. "What [satellites] do is provide that context."

Scientists look to Japan


Many scientists who worked with NASA are now hoping to use data from a carbon-monitoring satellite, GOSAT, that Japan's space agency launched last month.

Take Steven Wofsy of Harvard University, a lead scientist with HIPPO, a recently launched five-year project that uses airplanes to fly pole to pole, gathering information about how much CO2 they encounter along their journeys.

"HIPPO provides a cross-section of the atmosphere," Wofsy said. "The idea was to use that to help ensure [data from] the satellite was consistent with data being acquired at ground stations."

With the crash of the NASA satellite yesterday, Wofsy's team hopes to collaborate with the Japanese GOSAT scientists.

"It's not as if we're without anything to do," he said. "But now it's, 'Uh-oh, we need to figure out what to do next.' We didn't make contingency plans for failure."

Loss of the U.S. satellite comes at a time when many recent scientific studies have suggested that the world's oceans and forests are losing their ability to absorb CO2, said Scott Doney, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Doney called the crash yesterday "a substantial setback."

"There have been some studies in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean that suggest the ocean is becoming a less effective 'sink,'" he said.

It also comes as world leaders prepare to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

"In the long run, satellites will provide the information we need to evaluate how much fossil fuel CO2 we're actually emitting," Doney said. That information would form the basis for any international agreement. Satellite can also help monitor the effectiveness of policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

'Something was terribly wrong'

Agency officials said yesterday that it appears the fairing, a nose cone that shields the satellite as it travels through Earth's atmosphere, did not detach from the satellite the way it was supposed to.

That left the satellite carrying extra weight that prevented it from reaching orbit. It likely crashed into the ocean near Antarctica minutes later, said John Brunschwyler of Orbital Sciences, which manufactures the Taurus XL rocket used in yesterday's aborted launch.

"Certainly, for the scientific community, it's a huge disappointment," he said. "It's taken so long to get here."

Ross Salawitch of the University of Maryland, a founding member of the carbon observatory's science team, offered a sober firsthand account of the launch on his Web site. Many of the scientists who had traveled to Vandenberg Air Force Base to watch the launch did not realize it had failed until they returned to their hotel 45 minutes later, he wrote.

"When I walked into the hotel lobby, it was clear from the blank look on several hundred people's faces that something was terribly wrong," Salawitch said. "Those of us in the hotel had no contact with our friends and colleagues inside mission control ... about 40 of us lingered in the hotel lobby for about 2.5 hrs, from 2:30 a.m. until 5:00 a.m., to watch the press conference on a few laptops."

Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth science programs, said it was too soon to tell whether the agency would seek to rebuild the carbon observatory.

"OCO was an important mission to measure critical elements of the carbon cycle," he told reporters yesterday morning. "Over the next several days, weeks and months we are going to carefully evaluate how to move forward and advance the science."

Convening a 'mishap board' and looking for new sources of money

That will include looking at instruments already in orbit, which could be modified to collect more information about CO2 in the atmosphere, or seeking access to measurements collected by Japan's CO2-measuring satellite, GOSAT. There may also be "flight spares" for the carbon observatory, Freilich said.

NASA is putting together a "mishap board" to investigate why the launch failed, said launch manager Charles Dovale.

But ultimately, the agency's decision to rebuild or replace the observatory likely hinges on whether it can use money from the recent economic stimulus bill, which included $400 million for climate research at NASA, or whether Congress would be willing to include money for the project in upcoming spending legislation.

On Monday, House Democrats introduced an omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2009 that includes $260 million in new funding for climate science programs, including satellite programs at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Meanwhile, the fiscal year 2010 spending cycle kicks off tomorrow, when President Obama is set to release his first budget request to Congress.

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