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NASA Space Earth Science

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory Mission Fails 325

Posted by timothy
from the couldn't-make-it-through-all-the-soot dept.
jw3 writes "The NASA Orbiting Carbon Observatory scheduled for launch today has failed its mission: the payload fairing failed to separate and the launch managers declared a contingency. George Diller, NASA launch commentator, said, 'It either did not separate or did not separate in the way that it should, but at any rate we're still trying to evaluate exactly what the status of the spacecraft is at this point.'" Update: 02/24 14:17 GMT by T : Reader fadethepolice points out a Reuters report which says that the craft crashed into the ocean just short of Antarctica.
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NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory Mission Fails

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:07AM (#26968855)
    is a hoax, and the rocket knows it was just wasting time and money. It threw the launch.
  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:09AM (#26968877)
    Without a full investigation, I'd hypothesize tha the status is "laying in many pieces on the ice somewhere in Antarctica."
  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:11AM (#26968903)

    I know with the Mars rovers the cost of a second rover was small change compared to the development cost of the original. The launch vehicle is expensive, of course, but it was considered cheaper to launch two missions and hope one succeeded than launching one that could fail and mean all the money was wasted.

    What sort of contingency do they have for sats like this? Do they just fabricate another one and try again in a year or two?

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      What sort of contingency do they have for sats like this? Do they just fabricate another one and try again in a year or two?

      dunno but:

      WASHINGTON - NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to reach orbit [spaceref.com] this morning after a 4:51 a.m. EST liftoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. A media briefing on the mishap has been tentatively scheduled for 7:15 a.m. from Vandenberg. The briefing will be carried on NASA TV.

      It's now 0614 PST. Did anyone catch the media briefing? The only evidence I can see that the beeb was even aware of it is the line Nasa officials confirmed the launch had failed at a press conference held at 1

    • by confused one (671304) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:18AM (#26968991)
      Contingency? We don't have no contingency. Seriously though: looks like the only options are to either hope someone else's similar but not quite equivalent satellite generates data they can use; or, spend the money to build and launch a replacement. By the way, they spent 7 years building, testing and waiting for launch, not 2.
      • by Paranatural (661514) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:31AM (#26969143)

        Yes, but even before they launched, the builders were saying how much easier it would be to build a second one, now that all the design work was done and they have experience putting it together. They could probably create it all over again (comparatively) cheaply.

        On second thought, maybe they should tack on a year for design refinements and take a look at that whole separation module thingy.

        • by kestasjk (933987) * on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @11:06AM (#26969563) Homepage

          On second thought, maybe they should tack on a year for design refinements and take a look at that whole separation module thingy.

          The team that designed the satellite didn't design the rocket. The rocket was a "Taurus XL", built by a different team to the OCO team (not even by NASA).

          I imagine less than 7 years went into the rocket's design, and that it cost much less than $270 million, so I would guess the team behind the satellite would be pretty damn pissed. (I wonder if they insure it etc, and what sort of rates they have to pay to do so)

          At any rate it's a real tragedy for everyone; knowing much more about where CO2 comes from and goes would have been a huge leap forward for the study of global warming.

          • by bughunter (10093) <bughunter&earthlink,net> on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @03:06PM (#26973489) Journal

            I worked on the instrument team for OCO from 1999-2004, and on similar instruments in the past. Yes, it is much easier to build another, but unfortunately, it's not really that much cheaper from a mission point of view, since the launch vehicle and satellite buss are a large fraction of the cost, and most of that is already incremental cost, not NRE. Usually, NASA considers the risk of launch failure and requires contractors to keep records adequate to build another on an incremental basis.

            One other cost factor is the ground segment -- the mission operations center and the data analysis facility. As I understood it five years ago, there were plans to build a rather large data center to crunch all the spectrometry data that OCO would have sent down. That didn't get sunk to the bottom of the ocean.

            And while I don't think anyone is "pissed," the mission and instrument teams are probably quite dejected. Especially Dr. Crisp, the principal investigator. That was his baby.

            There is a good chance that NASA may still "do it over" however, 1) because of the reduced "incremental" cost, and 2) to support Pres. Obama's environmental policy.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by ca111a (1078961)
          >the builders were saying how much easier it would be to build a second one
          hmm... so the builders would actually be interested in the first one failing if they wanted more work?
        • by Civil_Disobedient (261825) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @11:43AM (#26970047)

          the builders were saying how much easier it would be to build a second one, now that all the design work was done and they have experience putting it together

          First rule in government spending: why build one when you can have two at twice the price? -S.R. Hadden [imdb.com]

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Lumpy (12016)

        So you are saying it will take another 7 years? Why did they launch all the plans and engineers up with it?

        I bet they can build a new one in months if they did not kill all the engineers and burn all the documentation.

        but then I dont know what NASA's new operation rules are. That might be a requirement. Place all that in the pit below the rocket just before launch...

        "Sorry dave and john, you knew this would happen when you signed your employment papers."
        "OOps! halt the countdown! we frgot to throw in al

    • by squoozer (730327)

      I believe that some important, difficult to replicate, missions have a second unlaunched backup of the satalite which is used for debugging etc. I don't know if this satalite would have such a back up though and then there is the problem of finding a launcher.

    • For space missions, once something is launched, all design is done. That's a very expensive component: the engineers' time to conceive and design. All that remains now for OCO is to determine the cause of failure, design a way to avoid it, and send the already-made drawings off to the shop again.

      The marginal cost is materials + machine shop time + assembly time + testing (not insignificant) + launch costs.

      Of course, it would have been cheaper to make the two flight units together initially... machining expe

    • by Guysmiley777 (880063) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @11:19AM (#26969723)
      The main difference is that Mars has historically been very unfriendly to probes (both surface and orbital). Low Earth orbit we have a much better handle on, you can generally assume that launches will succeed.

      Of course the Taurus XL launch vehicle hasn't been an overwhelming success, it's 6 for 8 now... Though when the failure comes from payload or fairing separation you'll get people pointing fingers at each other as to what caused the problem. From what I can see the actual rocket stages all performed correctly.
    • In a polar orbit like OCO would have been in, the satellite would regularly cover the entire earth's surface. The rovers had an expected range of a few hundred meters. Even the amazing dozen kilometers they've covered over their extended missions leaves each still within the major geological features they landed in.

      The insurance policy of having a second rover for moderate (not minimal) cost was one factor. I think it increased the costs by about 25%, and put considerable extra strain on the team to get
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Aliens sabotaged the launch so they can continue to warm the planet to make it more palatable to their bodies when they invade 20 years from now.

  • The satellite will now be re-purposed to study carbon and methane emissions that need to be observed to determine the current threat level regarding activity in R'lyeh.

    "Initial indications are the vehicle did not have enough [force] to reach orbit and landed just short of Antarctica in the ocean."

    I'm sure the ancient ones are happy to have some new tech to plunder.

    All hail the new tentacle observer!
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      I like this part: The rocket carried hydrazine fuel but NASA officials said they had no indication that any part of the rocket or satellite posed a threat to anyone. I hope that means all the fuel was burned. There's too much of that stuff floating around loose on the planet already.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by vlm (69642)

        I hope that means all the fuel was burned. There's too much of that stuff floating around loose on the planet already.

        Over the long term, hydrazine in the environment is mostly harmless.

        http://www.gasdetection.com/TECH/hydrazine.html [gasdetection.com]

        Vapor-phase hydrazine is degraded in the atmosphere by reaction with photochemically-produced hydroxyl radicals and ozone with estimated half-lives of about 6 and 9 hours, respectively.

        All the usual rules of half lives apply here. Somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4 of it's already broken down... Of course if sticking your head inside the fuel tank to take a look would have originally killed you 100 times over, and now it'll only kill you 25 times over, thats little comfort at this moment. None the less, even in colder conditions, it'll be "mostly harmless" in at most a couple

  • Rebuild? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by talcite (1258586) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:17AM (#26968969)
    I wonder if they have another OCO sitting as backup somewhere? Satellites are usually built in pairs just in case one of them fails during launch. Also, the BBC confirmed that the OCO is in the antarctic right now. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7907570.stm [bbc.co.uk]
    • Re:Rebuild? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jnik (1733) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:39AM (#26969237)

      Satellites are usually built in pairs just in case one of them fails during launch
      Not usually...at least none of the NASA or AFRL projects I'm familiar with has a full-build spare. It's not entirely uncommon to have a second of some of the instruments, and it's pretty common to have enough spare parts to build another copy of an instrument. (Much easier to buy a couple of spares up front rather than wait around if someone screws something up.) Then testing and integration can go much more quickly and cheaply, having done it once before. It still can take awhile, though [wikipedia.org].

      (Incidentally, the title and summary for this article suck...the OCO didn't fail, it was lost in a launch failure, and it didn't "fail its mission," it didn't get a chance to start. That's like saying your car broke down because someone ran a red light and T-boned it. No offense intended to the launch team.)

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Domint (1111399)

        Incidentally, the title and summary for this article suck...the OCO didn't fail, it was lost in a launch failure, and it didn't "fail its mission," it didn't get a chance to start. That's like saying your car broke down because someone ran a red light and T-boned it. No offense intended to the launch team.

        Hmmm. I'd suspect a better car analogy would be "That's like saying your car broke down because the truck hauling it from the manufacturer to the dealership you just placed the order through fell off a bridge." But perhaps I'm just nitpicking. :)

    • Re:Rebuild? (Score:5, Informative)

      by carambola5 (456983) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:55AM (#26969411) Homepage

      It depends on the project, but space projects - even small payloads aboard larger craft - are invariably built in sets. Unfortunately, you usually can't just launch one of the "spares" because they're not actually spares. They are identical units that are tested near (or beyond) the point of failure to predict lifetime of the one flight unit. These are called qualification units, or "Qual Units." Occasionally, you'll also have one or two ground-based units (ground-support equipment, or GSEs) that mimic the project's function but aren't necessarily built with space in mind... for example, expensive weight-saving milling operations have been omitted or cheaper wiring (PVC) may have replaced expensive space-worthy wiring (Teflon).

      • Re:Rebuild? (Score:4, Informative)

        by CraftyJack (1031736) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @02:27PM (#26972973)
        We seem to have different definitions for GSE. If a piece of hardware matches form, fit, and function, but uses different materials, I'd tend to call it a brassboard. For me, GSE usually refers to interface mockups, support electronics, etc. for testing a subsystem.
    • by Zoxed (676559)

      > I wonder if they have another OCO sitting as backup somewhere? Satellites are usually built in pairs just in case one of them fails during launch.

      You may be confusing building pairs with first building an Engineering Model first (to be hacked around, tested, re drilled etc) with the final version that is launched. The former is typically kept after launch to help with on-ground analysis of problems seen on-board.

      The Engineering Model can be later cannibalized, along with spares being used: eg S/C 1 for

  • Fantastic! (Score:5, Funny)

    by The Fun Guy (21791) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:19AM (#26968999) Homepage Journal

    The telemetry from the satellite is reading zero across the board. That must mean there's no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere anymore. Now we don't have to worry about global warming - fantastic!

    Good work, NASA. I knew we could get this climate change thing cleared up once we had better data.

  • Taurus XL (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JumboMessiah (316083) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:21AM (#26969021)

    Was the decision to use the Taurus [designation-systems.net] to keep launch costs down? Launching from Vandenberg, I'm assuming they were aiming for a steep inclination. Just wondering if anyone knows why they didn't go with a Delta II....

    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:31AM (#26969137) Homepage Journal

      Seems more like they used a Taurus [wikipedia.org]. If one of those gets where it's going, it's a miracle.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by zuckie13 (1334005)
      Taurus was probably chosen because it was cheaper than the Delta II (since the satellite didn't need the full capacity of a Delta II), was available, and fit the mission profile. It has had 5 or 6 successful launches, including launches for the Air Force/NRO, so it was a proven vehicle before this. The A-train constellation (which OCO was going to join) is a high inclination orbit (98.2 degrees), so Vandenberg was used for the launch site.
  • well we're f*****d (Score:5, Informative)

    by wisebabo (638845) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:22AM (#26969027) Journal

    This probe would have provided millions of carbon dioxide measurements a day* for the entire atmospheric column (rather than the hundreds of measurements, usually only at ground level that we currently get from our fixed sensors). Considering the importance these measurements would be in helping us predict climate change, I think we (the human race) has just suffered a serious setback.

    [There was a scene in the movie "Silent Running" where the command is given to jettison and detonate the last remaining biospheres. The commander says "may god have mercy on us". I'm beginning to feel that way now.]

    *it was going to take readings at 56,000 locations a day but at each location would record carbon dioxide concentrations for the entire air column.

    • by tpheiska (1145505) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:31AM (#26969133)

      So we lost a machine that would have given us concrete evidence on the *possible* increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. And now NASA lost it even though they haven't lost an earth orbit bound spacecraft in a while. Let me get my tinfoil hat.

      • by wisebabo (638845)

        Well, I'm a little concerned about possible feedback mechanisms kicking in that might make our climate problem much worse. Such as the permafrost in Siberia and Canada thawing out which may release a TRILLION tons of CO2 (roughly three times as much as all human activity through history combined). Also the discovery that, with the permafrost thawing, large stores of methane are being released (evidently you can go to lakes in the far north and "light the bubbles" up with a match, very impressive plumes of

    • It's strange, but when I saw the story about the upcoming launch, my first thought was "If there's one mission that I could predict failure of, this is it." Maybe I'm paranoid, but there are so many vested interests in not having accurate data like that, that even short of downright sabotage this mission had the odds stacked against it. When I saw the story this morning, I also got that sinking feeling.
      • by wisebabo (638845)

        Actually, I was a little worried a while ago when I found out they were using a Taurus launch vehicle (no offense Orbital). I've only heard of Taurus launch vehicles being used with military projects (and I thought they specialized in air-drop launches from a B-52).

        Anyway, I wished they had used something like a Delta (no I do not work for McDonnel Douglas/Boeing or who ever else makes them now!).

    • by DAldredge (2353)
      ^Drama Queen
      • by wisebabo (638845)

        Ok, ok, as an AC pointed out earlier there is a Japanese probe that *might* be capable of doing an okay job at this. But maybe not.

        We've lost eight years thanks to our previous administration and now I'm worrying that major feedback mechanisms might be kicking in that'll make things much worse (permafrost melting leading to CO2 and methane released, saturation of oceanic carbon sinks, etc.). If the Japanese probe doesn't provide us with definitive data one way or another, we may have lost a couple years.

    • Obligatory reference: http://khaaan.com/ [khaaan.com]
    • I can think of a hundred reasons someone would want this to fail. I was thinking about that yesterday when I learned about this launch and what it would be doing. What better solid proof that Co2 is causing an issue.

      Yes were now screwed because there is apparently no backup satellite and it will take years (Conveniently) to build a new one.

    • OCO would have been very useful, but please don't exaggerate the loss ("the human race has suffered a serious setback").

      It's true that we only get hundreds of flux measurements from ground sensors. But OCO wouldn't give full planetary coverage, just narrow 10-km slices, so you've got a big interpolation problem anyway: high data density where you have measurements but large gaps in between. Plus, it only gives total air column concentration, where for analysis of carbon sinks we really want to know surfa

    • by Blakey Rat (99501)

      Silent Running had a moronic premise. Even so, I agreed with the other crew members: if everyone on earth is fed and happy, who gives a whit about forests? Hell, we have tons of forests now and we can barely keep a third of the world fed and happy.

    • The commander says "may god have mercy on us". I'm beginning to feel that way now.

      OK, now hold one hand to your racing heart and the other to your forehead and declare, "Oh my! I have the vapors!"

      Now swoon, gimme that look of shock and.... faint to the floor!

      Perfect! Cut! Print it. Take five, everyone.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by twostix (1277166)

      Good god man, you're embarrassing yourself. Get a grip.

      Life is not a movie, there's no imminent state of emergency, the entire planet is not going to implode, explode, rain fireballs, etc.

      Even if GW is as bad as it can possibly be, you and I will see only the slightest changes in our lifetimes, many many people will see none at all. Future generations will have to adapt and alter to compensate, like they always HAVE. 100 years ago My great-grandfather used to grow crop 50kms from where I live now. The a

  • by Mr_Perl (142164) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:27AM (#26969091) Homepage

    Dear Lincoln,

    Ha ha old man, I had to spend much in sabotaging your CO2 monitoring satellite. But now all your base are belong to us.

    Signed,
    Chairman Mao
    Chinese Empire

    • by aapold (753705)

      Seriously, if it were going to be sabotaged, China would be a prime suspect. More so than the automakers or even the oil industry...

      • Actually I don't think the Chinese would have nearly as much to benefit as from the Canadians (who are always looking for ways to defrost!)

  • NASA on Twitter (Score:4, Interesting)

    by opec (755488) * on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:27AM (#26969097) Homepage
    It's kind of weird, interesting, and depressing to watch this history be made through NASA's Twitter updates [nasa.gov]:
    • The countdown has begun in California for the launch of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory in less than 1 hour. The stars are out tonight!
    • Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) update: Weather is perfect for launch in less than half an hour.
    • OCO launch update: Liftoff is now set for 4:55 EST. Catch it on www.nasa.gov/ntv
    • OCO launch update: WE HAVE LIFTOFF!
    • OCO launch update: We have Stage 3 ignition. The mission is off to a great start!
    • OCO launch update: We have a mission failure. Press briefing to be held at Vandenberg in approximately 2 hours.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by bughunter (10093)
      That's a pretty accurate (if twitterpated) version of what it's like to be live at a launch that fails... excitement, Excitement, exCITEment, EXCITEMENT... letdown.
  • Oh dear. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by apodyopsis (1048476) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:32AM (#26969161)

    the key satillite designed to monitor global warming and CO2 pollution and hence get scientific data that might affect global business and industrial nations has just nose dived into Antartica?

    lets make sure nobody tells the conspiracy theorists, they could have a ball with this one.

    • by Spatial (1235392)
      Conspiracy theorists don't need things like 'facts', they're perfectly happy to fabricate their own.
  • by olddotter (638430) on Tuesday February 24, 2009 @10:44AM (#26969289) Homepage

    The 986-pound (447-kg) spacecraft was tucked inside a clamshell-like shroud to protect it during the ride into space. But three minutes into the flight, the cover failed to separate as expected, dooming the mission.

    "As a direct result of carrying that extra weight we could not make orbit," said John Brunschwyler, the Taurus program manager with manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp.

    The spacecraft, also built by Orbital Sciences, fell back to Earth, splashing down into the southern Pacific Ocean near Antarctica.

  • > the craft crashed into the ocean just short of Antarctica.

    So luckily it had a softer landing by hitting water instead of some of that hard ice.

    Oh. Wait !!

  • It didn't fail its mission, it failed its launch. If its mission was to launch then it failed its mission. However, its mission was to monitor CO2, which it never got a chance to begin.

  • Orbital won part of the ISS re-supply contract. But, l-mart and boeing are suing saying that they had a better plan. In point of fact, NASA said that the alternative had better points, etc. Now, Orbital loses an important sat. This may well lose that contract for Orbital or at least allow that partial contract to be cut in half (1/4 of total to each). To be honest, I would not mind seeing that happen. We NEED multiple launchers.

    But if that happens, I would love to see Boeing, L-Mart, or even the US buy a b
  • I don't know if its really different or whatever, but Japan has a satellite they managed to get off the earth that sounds like its going to do about the same thing. http://www.jaxa.jp/projects/sat/gosat/index_e.html [www.jaxa.jp]
  • Did it fail because the global warming zealots deep down knew they were full of sh*t and sabotaged the satellite to keep the hoax going? --- Or --- Did it fail because the anti-global-warming crew didn't want more "data" to be added to the debate? Personally, I would laugh my ass off if the satellite used a nuclear power source. That's irony.

  • NASA has delayed it three weeks due to concern about a valve with a bad history. Some NSA engineers are demanding a redesign which take another half year. At worst this could end the Shuttle program as Obama looks for lemons to cut. At best the Hubble servicing mission is probably a goner due to schedule delays.

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