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Down, but not out

NASA should work immediately to replace the lost Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

Climate scientists suffered a tremendous loss last week when a failed launch attempt sent the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) plummeting into the ocean near Antarctica. In conjunction with the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) recently launched by Japan, the OCO could have redefined the way that researchers think about the global carbon cycle, and laid the foundations for a long-term global carbon-monitoring programme. It is an unfortunate testament to the OCO that the reasons to fly such a mission are just as valid today as they were when the idea was put forward a decade ago. NASA should accordingly move with all haste towards an OCO II.

Although small changes to improve the device without significantly extending the schedule are welcome, the goal should be speed. NASA has some spare equipment, including detectors, and the agency should therefore be able to get a replacement into space within a few years. This might even allow the OCO to operate in concert with GOSAT for a time, as originally planned, which would allow scientists to better calibrate and understand the quirks of both machines.

“NASA would be wise to develop a long-term strategic plan for assessing global carbon flows.”

The US$273-million OCO was designed to test a conceptually simple technique for using reflected sunlight to probe carbon dioxide concentrations in the air column below the satellite. This would have allowed scientists to assess the movement of CO2 throughout the atmosphere, which is just as important to scientists as it is to policy-makers who are debating international carbon controls. GOSAT provides less detail but greater context by simultaneously measuring CO2, methane and water vapour.

If money were the deciding factor, perhaps it would make sense to simply wring everything possible out of GOSAT. The new data could then be integrated into the development of a next-generation carbon-monitoring satellite, which would do everything the OCO could do and more. But now is not the time to be frugal.

Indeed, thanks to the recently passed stimulus bill, it is raining dollars in Washington. NASA has already received $1 billion from the bill, $400 million of which is slated for Earth science and climate research. Even after paying for an OCO II — which could be delivered more quickly and for less money than its predecessor — NASA would still have plenty of cash left for other projects. In addition, spending money on a replacement would create as many new jobs as anything else at NASA.

In the meantime, NASA could improve its ground measurements and expand the use of aircraft, which offer cheaper and faster opportunities to get high-quality data from all over the world. Given the scientific and geopolitical issues at stake, NASA would be wise to develop a long-term strategic plan for assessing global carbon flows. In particular, it should join with the space agencies of the world to develop a coordinated plan for an international network of satellites to monitor greenhouse gases. As an added bonus, such an approach would build in redundancies that would make a similar “mishap”, to use NASA's lingo, a bit less consequential.

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Down, but not out. Nature 458, 8 (2009).

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