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Research / Discovery

OCO may be back, CSU scientists say after mission fails

February 24, 2009

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, the latest NASA Earth science mission involving a team of Colorado State University scientists, failed to reach orbit after its 2:55 a.m. MST Tuesday liftoff from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The mission, led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was expected to measure reflected sunlight in color bands absorbed by carbon dioxide and oxygen.

CSU was part of an international team responsible for turning those observations into precise measurements of carbon dioxide concentration and ultimately determining sources of the greenhouse gas as well as “sinks” or places where the gas is being absorbed.

Photo:  Time-lapse of the launch (about four minutes' worth), starting at T-20 seconds and continuing until the satellite was no longer visible. The bright trail is the exhaust trail of the various stages of the rocket as the rocket moved downrange. Photo courtesy of Matt Rogers, atmospheric research scientist at CSU.

CO2 data

Denis O’Brien, senior research scientist at Colorado State, led an international team responsible for developing the algorithm or computer program that would have converted the spectroscopic measurements to atmospheric CO2 data. O’Brien, along Graeme Stephens, University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State, worked on early concepts for OCO.

"I think we just get up, dust ourselves off and push to do it again because it's the right thing to do and these measurements serve an enormous good beyond CSU, beyond NASA," Stephens said.

Major disappointment

A nine-member team at Colorado State's internationally known Department of Atmospheric Science worked with NASA on the project including Scott Denning, atmospheric science professor, Chris O'Dell, research scientist, and David Baker, postdoctoral fellow.

“We've been waiting nine years for these data, which I've said would revolutionize the study of the global carbon cycle,” Denning said. “So obviously it's a major disappointment to lose the mission.

Hope that NASA will fly a replacement mission

“We hope that NASA will fly a replacement mission, and there's also the possibility that an even better instrument will be flown in the coming decade, but of course developing and building these things difficult, slow, and expensive,” Denning said.

“In the course of our preparations for the mission, we've developed tremendous new capability to analyze the breathing of the Earth, and will pursue this research using other data. There's a Japanese satellite called GOSAT which will also measure CO2, and an emerging network of instruments on the ground and samples collected from aircraft. It's really important that we continue trying to understand how the carbon cycle works, because it's one of the main limitations on our understanding of future climate.”

NASA news release

Contact: Emily Wilmsen
Phone: (970) 491-2336