RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Yesterday, we reported on a NASA mission to launch a satellite to monitor global warming.

Unidentified Male: Two, one, zero, and lift off of the Taurus rocket with OCO, tracking a greenhouse gas…

MONTAGNE: Just minutes after that lift-off early today, the rocket carrying that satellite crashed into the ocean near Antarctica.

NPR's Richard Harris is following this story. And Richard, what details do you have about the crash?

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, Renee, it's obviously early days, but the launch was from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The idea was to put this satellite into orbit that would go over both poles of the Earth. So, as it orbited the Earth, it would eventually get a whole view of the Earth.

And what happened, apparently, was the launch worked as expected, as you heard there. But just a few minutes after that, what was supposed to happen was, there's a protective shroud that's around the satellite itself, on top of the rocket, and that's supposed to fall free and let the satellite go. And apparently, the early indications are that shroud did not fall free. And as a result, the satellite was, apparently, still attached to the rocket. And the rocket and the satellite together ended up plunging into the ocean instead of getting into orbit.

MONTAGNE: Remind us exactly what this satellite's mission was, rather an ambitious and exciting mission.

HARRIS: It was, yes. It's called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. And the idea of this mission was to circle the Earth and measure carbon dioxide, which is the most important greenhouse gas up there. And even though we've spent a lot of time trying to understand what's up with carbon dioxide, they still - scientists don't have a really good idea of exactly what all the sources are, and maybe even more importantly, where it all goes - because a lot of it actually gets soaked up again into the oceans and into forests and so on. And that balance of emissions and absorption really determines how much is left in the atmosphere.

And, of course, we know that it's building up more and more in the atmosphere. But understanding the dynamics of that is critical, because if this absorption of carbon dioxide slows down too much, carbon dioxide will build up even faster. If, on the other hand, the planet adjusts a little bit and can soak up more carbon dioxide, it might buy us just a little bit more time when it comes to global warming.

MONTAGNE: And now, the loss of this satellite, how big of a loss is this for NASA's program to monitor greenhouse gases?

HARRIS: Well, there are a lot of heartbreaks in NASA. I talked to the principal investigator at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who had been developing this thing. He said they started in the year 2000 to get this going. It was deemed to be one of the most important missions for NASA to pursue because obviously, global warming is a critical issue. And they've been working really hard. They have been, you know, just slaving away to make this happen. And I'm sure - I haven't talked to him this morning - but I'm sure there are really big disappointments there.

The plus side is the Japanese Space Agency actually launched a fairly similar satellite, and it got into orbit earlier this month, and it seems to be operating well. So there's at least another source of data for this right now. But obviously, the NASA program is in trouble.

MONTAGNE: Well, will all that hard work at NASA pay off in getting another satellite to replace this satellite up there?

HARRIS: Well, at least they figured out how to make the instrument to measure this carbon dioxide. That was a really tough technical challenge. So, they've done a lot of the hard work. And it's obviously a matter of budgeting, whether they'll get more money to try it again. This was supposed to be a two-year mission. But if it was successful, they were hoping that the technology could then be picked up and used on other satellites.

So, first NASA's going to investigate and figure out exactly what went wrong. And then, they'll have to make some big decisions about whether to put more money into this.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Richard Harris.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.