NASA Loses Carbon-Measuring Satellite A powerful new NASA satellite designed to measure carbon dioxide fell into the ocean near Antarctica shortly after its launch Tuesday. A preliminary investigation shows that a protective shroud around the satellite failed to break free, fatally weighing down the $278 million orbiter.
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NASA Loses Carbon-Measuring Satellite

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NASA Loses Carbon-Measuring Satellite

NASA Loses Carbon-Measuring Satellite

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris. A NASA satellite, designed to study global warming, ended up in the ocean today instead of its intended orbit. The loss is a tough blow for science and for the researchers who've been working on the project for almost a decade. NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS: The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was launched very early this morning from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. For the first few minutes, everything looked fine. The Taurus rocket fired its first stage, then its second stage, without incident. But then came a critical moment - a shroud covering the satellite was supposed to fall away.

JOHN BRUNSCHWYLER: The initial indications is that it did not come off.

HARRIS: That's John Brunschwyler from Orbital Sciences Corporation, the company that made the rocket. Electrical signals did go out to explode bolts that held the shroud, but for whatever reason, the shroud stayed in place. He says that hang-up made the satellite impossibly heavy.

BRUNSCHWYLER: As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit. And the initial indications are that the vehicle landed just short of Antarctica, in the ocean.

HARRIS: That's a loss to Orbital Sciences Corporation, which has now seen two failures out of eight launches of the company's Taurus rocket. But it's also a loss to science. The satellite was designed to measure carbon dioxide around the world to get a better idea of where the gas comes from, and how the Earth and oceans absorb it. NASA immediately launched an investigation into the accident and the space agency, just as quickly, set out to figure out what to do next. Agency scientist Ken Jucks says one possibility is to try to build another one.

KEN JUCKS: We have some spare detectors and lots of parts, but then we have to assemble it and go through the whole testing procedure. And that does takes time.

HARRIS: Another possibility is to leave this technology behind and push up development of the next generation of carbon dioxide detectors, he says. These shine laser beams down from space to make their measurements. Scientists will certainly rely more heavily on a Japanese carbon dioxide satellite, which was launched last month and is working well. But that satellite doesn't have the exact same mission.

JUCKS: I've known them - some of them - for 15, 20 years. They've put their heart and soul into this instrument and now it's gone, so...

TONY BUSALAKI: It's like being punched in the stomach to see something like this happen.

HARRIS: That's Tony Busalaki at the University Of Maryland.

BUSALAKI: And that's also the nature of this particular game. It's not 100 percent certainty. But when it does happen, it is a major loss.

HARRIS: Busalaki says with expected climate treaties and unanswered science questions about global warming, measuring carbon dioxide from space is a top priority.

BUSALAKI: We clearly need an accepted monitoring strategy on a global basis. And that's what - this was about to give us that, and now we've lost it.

HARRIS: So NASA hopes to move quickly to plug that gap.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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