The first satellite designed exclusively to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide from space failed to reach orbit during this morning’s launch, NASA reported. The Orbital Carbon Observatory (O-C-O, an acronym that matches the chemical diagram for carbon dioxide) “did not achieve orbit successfully in a way that we could have a mission,” Nasa launch commentator George Diller announced following the early-morning liftoff. “I am bitterly disappointed about the loss of OCO,” Dr. Paul Palmer, a scientist collaborating on the mission, told BBC News. “My thoughts go out to the science team that have dedicated the past seven years to building and testing the instrument.” NASA’s announcement explains the loss in dry terms:
When OCO launched Feb. 24, the payload fairing did not separate as it was supposed to and the mission ended.
The OCO would have complemented the Japanese satellite Gosat, designed to measure carbon dioxide and methane emissions with an infrared spectrometer and a cloud and aerosol imager. Gosat successfully launched on Friday. The two satellites were designed to work together and cross-check each other’s measurements, with “a common ground validation network to help combine data from the missions.”
Satellite measurement of CO2 emissions is needed to complete scientists’ understanding of the carbon cycle. Scientific American’s David Biello explained the mystery of the missing carbon before OCO’s launch:
Human activity—from coal-fired power plants to car tailpipes—is responsible for nearly 30 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide wafting into the atmosphere yearly. We know that roughly 15 billion metric tons remains in the atmosphere for a century or more. A portion of the rest ends up in the ocean—acidifying saltwater and making life tough for corals—and another chunk appears to be helping tropical trees grow thicker. We don’t know, however, where the rest of humanity’s CO2 is disappearing to.