Feb 242009
Authors: Natasha Pepperl

NASA officials confirmed Monday that a satellite designed in part by CSU researchers to take carbon dioxide measurements in the atmosphere crashed into the ocean after its launch early Tuesday morning because of complications with launch equipment.

In a press conference later Monday, NASA officials said they suspect that the fairing, which encapsulates the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and attaches to the side of the rocket-like launch vehicle, did not open entirely, preventing the satellite’s release.

Scott Denning, a CSU atmospheric science professor and one of nine CSU professors on the OCO team, said of the failed mission, “Obviously it’s a huge disappointment,” explaining that the satellite was completely destroyed.

Alan Buis, a spokesperson for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, said that, while he did not have exact statistics, it “has been a while since a NASA launch has failed,” adding that, “launch vehicle failures are rare these days.”

OCO, which took NASA engineers, CSU researchers and other industry partners about eight years to develop, was designed to take the measurements of reflected sunlight and turn them into carbon dioxide measurements.

To take the measurements, the satellite used a computer program developed by an international team led by Denis O’Brien, a CSU senior research scientist.

The satellite was engineered to measure sunlight that passes up and down through the atmosphere and analyze certain colors emitted when carbon dioxide absorbs the light. Using the colors, which are in reality shades of gray, the OCO would detect variations in the grays to measure how many molecules of carbon dioxide are present in the atmosphere.

The idea for OCO was based on CloudSat, another NASA satellite designed to measure precipitation in clouds. Graeme Stephens, a CSU professor who led the CloudSat project, contributed to engineering on OCO.

CSU researchers were set to play a lead role in interpreting the data gathered by the OCO in order to determine carbon dioxide levels and better understand what Denning called the “breathing of the earth.”

He added that, by using data gathered, they also hoped to discover the area where half of the disappearing fossil fuel emissions escape.

“Plants are growing faster than they are dying … (which) is not what anybody would’ve expected,” Denning said of the current effects of carbon emissions on the earth’s environment. He noted that OCO data was expected to help explain the phenomena and predict future climate changes.

Denning said that while they will not have the help of the OCO, CSU and NASA plans to move forward with gathering data about carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

“We will continue to do that work, but we will have to do it without the OCO instrument,” Denning said.

Denning said negotiations are underway between NASA and Japan to obtain data from a recently launched satellite similar to OCO.

While disappointed with Monday’s crash, Denning said he believes that NASA will eventually launch another satellite.

“(We’ll) continue to move the science forward even after the disastrous failure of this mission,” Denning said.

And of the current carbon dioxide problem, “I have confidence that we’re going to solve this.”

“We will do this,” he said. “It’s just going to take longer than we thought it would.”

Staff writer Natasha Pepperl can be reach at news@collegian.com.

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