Feb 24, 2009

Satellite to Study Global-Warming Gases Lost in Space

Estimated Article Reading Time: 4 min.

Feb. 24 (Bloomberg) — A satellite launched from California failed to reach orbit today, crashing into the sea near Antarctica and dooming a $273 million mission to study global- warming gases.

“The mission is lost,” National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokesman Steve Cole said in a telephone interview from the launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The NASA satellite was to orbit 438 miles (705 kilometers) above Earth and observe how carbon dioxide enters and leaves the atmosphere, helping scientists predict future increases in the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming. Instead, the satellite fell into the ocean near Antarctica. The mission manager said at no point did the craft pass over land.

“It’s a huge disappointment for the entire team who have worked very hard for years and years and years,” NASA Launch Director Chuck Dovale said in a briefing from California. “Even when you do your very best, you can still fail.”

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite didn’t reach orbit after a 1:55 a.m. launch because the “payload fairing” failed to separate, NASA said. The fairing covers the top of the satellite during launch and needs to come off so the satellite can detach from the rocket and enter orbit.

‘Novel Information’

“It’s disappointing because it was giving us novel information to help us move our understanding forward on global warming,” Alan O’Neill, science director of the Reading, U.K.- based Centre for Earth Observation, said in an interview.

NASA said it has begun an investigation to determine what led to the malfunction.

Cole said the space agency will now decide whether to construct a new satellite or to use a spacecraft already in development. In either case it will be at least one to two years before the launch of a satellite that will monitor carbon dioxide, he said.

“You need some time to figure out what you’re going to do,” Cole said. “Then you’ve got to build” the satellite.

Both the satellite and launch rocket were built by Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. John Brunschwyler, Orbital Sciences’s mission manager, said “over the past 10 years, we’ve flown a nearly perfect record — 56 out of 57 vehicles and we’ve not had any problems with this particular fairing design.”

NASA’s investment was $273 million for the design, development and launch operations. Insurance details on the mission may be given later today, NASA said.

Carbon ‘Sinks’

The craft contained a monitoring device designed to collect 8 million measurements every 16 days. Scientists hoped to use the data to find out how much carbon dioxide is absorbed by the forests, grasslands and oceans, which are collectively known as “sinks.”

Man-made carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere, is largely produced by power plants, vehicle engines and factories.

The data gleaned from the satellite was intended to help guide government global-warming policy, NASA said.

“An improved understanding of carbon sinks is essential to predicting future carbon-dioxide increases and making accurate predictions of carbon dioxide’s impact on Earth’s climate,” NASA said on the mission Web site. “If these natural carbon-dioxide sinks become less efficient as the climate changes, the rate of buildup of carbon dioxide would increase.”

Natural Sources

Technology allows scientists to distinguish between carbon dioxide that is generated by humans and that which is emitted from natural sources such as decaying plants, according to NASA.

Between 1751 and 2003, human activities released 626 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, NASA said. Yet only about 192 billion tons of the gas remained in the atmosphere, according to the agency.

Helping to find out where the missing carbon dioxide went was one of the satellite’s missions.

On Jan. 23, Japan launched what it said was the world’s first satellite, Gosat, to measure greenhouse gases from 56,000 points around the globe over five years.

Today’s satellite was expected to have a minimum three-year life. Similar spacecraft have lasted five to 10 years, David Steitz, a NASA spokesman, said yesterday.

It contained a carbon-monitoring device made by Hamilton Sundstrand Corp., a unit of Hartford, Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp.

Too Heavy

While launch and separation of the rocket’s first stage went as planned, a clamshell-shaped “fairing” covering the satellite failed to open, meaning it was too heavy to reach orbit, Brunschwyler said on NASA’s online television station.

Earlier this month, the collision of Russian and U.S. satellites destroyed an Iridium Satellite LLC communications craft and a defunct Russian Cosmos 2251, NASA said. The incident created a space debris field of more than 300 pieces that could damage other satellites.

At least 18,000 satellites, debris and other space objects orbiting the Earth are tracked by the U.S. Joint Space Operations center. The Soviet Union put the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in 1957.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net