The night a satellite crashed

OCO splashed into the sea near Antarctica Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009, leaving eight years of preparation to study Earth’s carbon cycle from space unrealized.

The loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory will ripple for years among the scientists and other folks involved with one of the most ambitious scientific endeavors – aiming to see the Earth “breathe” from space.

OCO splashed into the sea near Antarctica Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009, leaving eight years of preparation to study Earth’s carbon cycle from space unrealized.

The greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (or CO2) is released by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, to name a couple of causes. Roughly half of all CO2 generated by manmade activities – about seven gigatons a year – is swallowed up by Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not clear exactly where the other half goes, whether more goes into the oceans or whether the excess gets absorbed on land in the bodies of plants and trees.  Where the missing CO2 goes could impact humans in the short term, because CO2 will tend to stay in the ocean for much longer than CO2 that is absorbed and eventually released by plants as they decay.

Where does the excess CO2 go? This information about Earth’s carbon cycle is critical for the political leaders of our planet as they wrestle with what people must do to adapt to climate change in the decades to come.  One can only hope that no time is lost to pick up the pieces, in a sense, and initiate a replacement for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory.

I asked a team scientist involved with NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, Ross Salawitch of the University of Maryland, his thoughts on the loss of the OCO.  You can read on his website about the night of the OCO crashed, https://www.atmos.umd.edu/~rjs/oco/, a night that Salawitch calls “surreal.”

Jorge Salazar