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NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashes into the ocean

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), NASA’s satellite to track CO2 emissions on Earth, failed to reach orbit after blasting off early this morning, crashing in the waters off of Antarctica and dashing hopes for the $278-million mission.

The payload fairing—a shroud that covered the OCO to protect it during its trip through the atmosphere—failed to separate from the Taurus XL booster rocket carrying the satellite after it took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1:55 A.M. Pacific time (4:55 A.M. Eastern time), NASA said.

“The satellite reentered the atmosphere and fell into the ocean just short of Antarctica,” Alan Buis, a spokesperson for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells us. “The mission is lost.

“Obviously we’re all very disappointed,” Buis added. “It’s a huge disappointment for the whole team.”

Buis said the satellite would have broken apart when it hit the ocean, making it unsalvageable. NASA will study whether it will develop another OCO, he said.

The OCO would have helped scientists monitor global warming by measuring how much carbon dioxide was in a given part of the atmosphere and where it was being absorbed. Japan successfully launched a similar satellite last month. About 100 ground stations—plus high-flying aircraft—now monitor CO2. All of that information, however, would have been eclipsed by each 16-day orbit of OCO.

"With the launch of OCO, scientists will be able to study CO2 concentration from the surface of the Earth to the top of the atmosphere," Eric Ianson, OCO science program executive at NASA, told ScientificAmerican.com earlier this week. "Its high-resolution measurements will provide a more complete picture of human and natural sources of CO2 at the local and regional scale."

Evidently, the flubbed launch is not one of the nine ways NASA can tackle climate change.

OCO liftoff/NASA TV

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