Early this morning, thousands of scientists had their hearts broken as a NASA satellite crucial to studying climate change suffered a critical failure during launch and plunked into the Pacific Ocean.
Ironically, the Orbital Carbon Observatory was doomed by the added weight of a protective device. The $273 million satellite, perched at the tip of a Taurus XL rocket, was wrapped in a clamshell shroud that was meant to protect the satellite's sensitive equipment as it shot through the atmosphere. Once through the thickest part of the atmosphere, the shroud was supposed to automatically shed, lessening the rocket's payload and allowing for the speed burst necessary to get the satellite into orbit. Unfortunately, the shroud never separated from the satellite, the satellite never got its speed burst, and the whole thing plunked into the ocean near Antarctica.
This failure is a massive blow to NASA's A-Train satellite network, a series of satellites geared toward monitoring all things Earth, from from moisture to clouds to ocean currents and aerosol dispersal. The OCO was meant to provide the best-ever measurements of atmospheric carbon—the gas most responsible for driving global warming—and data on how it is dispersed around the globe, both of which would improve current carbon models. It's also a somber reminder of just how tough it is to get into space, and NASA will conduct a thorough investigation of the failure before launching its Glory satellite, another spacecraft designed for environmental monitoring, on a Taurus rocket in October.
Hmm, the "gas most responsible for driving global warming" Bjorn Carey says? Sorry Bjorn, you are full of bull. That gas would be water vapor in the form of clouds, which in a roundabout way depends on sunspot activity, which is exactly why our world now enters a Little Ice Age, which will fade away in a decade or two and the world will resume the very gradual warming which in another 5,000 years or so will raise the mean sea level about 65 feet.
Popular Science staff better be careful or they will get so full of crap they will start claiming that the oceans will rise 65 feet in the next 50 or 100 years. At that point Bjorn's eyes will be completely brown (assuming they are Viking blue at present.)
It is a tragedy that the satellite failed because raw knowledge is always useful. You just have to be sure you get the raw data before some real shysters at NASA get ahold of it and totally misrepresent what the numbers tell us (even going so far as to use statistical tricks to insure that the numbers support the political point some at NASA want to make!)
Well, I agree that it is a tragedy the satellite failed to reach orbit, since more data regarding atmospheric CO2 levels and distribution would be useful in calculating climate change models.
However, that's where the agreement must end, since the not-so-civil argument with the article's author is not correct. Technically, methane is the most potent greenhouse gas, not carbon. But since we are emitting more CO2 than methane (although emissions from methane from industrial and modern agricultural enterprises are not insignificant), it's the gas that most concerns us. Water vapor can trap heat, as anyone who's experienced a hot and muggy day can tell you. Still, the effects tend to be local, based on the fact that water is constantly changing states from vapor to liquid, and in some spots, ice depending on local weather conditions. Cloud cover at night can also hold in heat absorbed by the ground during the day. However, bright white clouds during the day increase albedo, or the reflectivity of sunlight, contributing to cooling in the areas they cover. In fact, some of the geoengineering concepts for countering global warming call for artificially creating additional daytime cloud cover. Thus, water vapor can be an even greater force of cooling than it can contribute to heating.
On the subject of NASA satellite launches, though, I've got my fingers crossed hoping for better luck with the Kepler telescope, which is scheduled for launch later next week. If it finds the first true earthlike planets around other stars, as expected, it has the potential to change the way we think about the environment on this planet, and the possible environments that may support life on some of these other worlds.
Keep those fingers crossed, Mike_R, because the collision of the satellites a few weeks ago has really bolixed up the orbit windows. The problem is that so many debris flew off with so much energy that nobody really knows where anything is.
I support the manned exploration of space because I believe that humanity has the moral responsibility to take as much of our biosphere safely off planet as soon as possible, at least in the form of seeds, DNA information, frozen embyros and so on. This is important because science increasingly reveals a whole lot of extinction-level events that could come along without warning. We seem to discover more of them all the time, from super-volcanos to gamma ray blasters. It almost makes you miss the old days when all we had to worry about was NORAD detecting incoming warheads and DEFCON2 going to DEFCON3. I can't even drive through Yellowstone Park anymore without getting nervous.