A couple weeks back, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) failed to achieve orbit and crashed into the ocean, having measured…absolutely nothing.
The nose cone somehow failed to disengage from the satellite, and the whole thing was too heavy to actually enter orbit. Ugh. I’d have snarkier things to say if I weren’t so disappointed by the news.
The satellite system was intended to measure CO2 sources and sinks, and to fill an egregious gap in the satellite missions put on by the U.S. Although there is a relatively large variety of earth-observing satellites already in orbit, the majority of these are well past their designed lifespans — some of them decades beyond their planned fail dates. When one of these sensors breaks down (as they routinely do), scientists back on earth are left with holes in the data that seriously undermine attempts at understanding the earth’s carbon and nutrient cycle.
All is not lost: thankfully Japan launched a nearly identical satellite (but with a lower resolution) just a week earlier. And the stimulus package included $400 million for space-based Earth sensors. (The failed OCO satellite cost $278 million, so at the going rate, we’ve now got enough for 1.39 new satellites.)
If we’re going to get serious about climate change, if we’re going to try and understand the earth’s many feedback cycles and interactions between carbon sources and sinks, we need to have a global, high resolution, and continuous data set from orbiting satellites. That’s a hard feat to accomplish, and right now we’re flying pretty blind.