‘Missing Sink’ Finder Goes Missing Near the Antarctic

by Bill Chameides | February 25th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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A Taurus rocket took off but did not successfully launch the CO2 observatory into orbit. (Image credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Climate scientists were looking forward with anticipation to yesterday’s NASA launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) – it was going to help resolve one of the major debates among climate scientists. But it was not to be… in NASA parlance there was a “launch contingency.”

As much as 55 percent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is emitted into the atmosphere is removed within a year. Some of it goes into the ocean and some into forests (more details here). But we’re not sure how much goes where; some cannot yet be definitively accounted for – scientists call that residual amount the “missing sink.” And for more than a decade, identifying the missing sink has been one of the holy grails of climate science research. Yesterday was supposed to mark a new era, the launch of a satellite that would in fact provide a definitive answer. But as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and scientists often go awry.

Missing Sink Key to Devising Climate Change Strategy

As I discussed in a recent post, identifying the missing sink is key to being able to devise a strategy for avoiding dangerous climate change. If the missing sink becomes weaker in the future, we’ll need even larger decreases in CO2 emissions than currently estimated to avert dangerous climate change. If, on the other hand, the missing sink gets stronger, the required emissions cuts will be lower. But if we don’t know what the missing sink is, it’s kind of difficult to predict its future behavior. And there in a nutshell is the pickle we find ourselves in.

Speak to different scientists and you’ll get different views on the missing sink. One possibility is that ocean scientists have underestimated the rate at which CO2 goes into the ocean and thus that the missing sink or at least part of it is the ocean. Another possibility is that some or all of the missing sink is in forests of the temperate mid-latitudes or in tropical forests or even in deserts.

Carbon Observer Was to Help Locate the Missing Sink(s)

And so the debate rages. Scientific debates are great, but in this particular case we really needed an answer. And for this one it appeared that you had to be a rocket scientist to come up with it – actually a whole team of NASA rocket scientists and engineers.

They built a new instrument called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which when launched into orbit around the Earth would be able to map out the spatial distribution of CO2 in unprecedented detail (8,000,000 measurements every 16 days), paying particular attention to Earth’s lower atmosphere.

By looking at the places where the observer would show high (or low) levels of CO2 concentrations, scientists would be able to figure out where CO2 is being emitted and where it is being removed – and presumably identify where the missing sink or sinks are. And in short order the observatory would help resolve the scientific debate.

Flash forward to yesterday morning. A rocket with the CO2-tracking satellite launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 1:55 PST. Shortly thereafter, NASA’s George Diller announced, “We have declared a launch contingency, meaning that we did not have a successful launch.” (See video.) Apparently a problem with the payload fairing (or nose cone) that protects the satellite on the rocket during its initial trajectory caused the launch to fail. (See news story.) It is believed that the satellite fell to Earth in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. Bummer.

Given the mission’s importance and relatively low costs (~ $273 million), I’m sure I’m not the only climate scientist hoping that NASA builds another satellite and resumes the OCO mission. Right now, all the agency will indicate is that plans are, well, up in the air. And that’s just not as helpful as a CO2-tracker up in the air.

More Information

Experiencing the Launch of the OCO: A Bad Day” – NASA’s Eric Ianson blogs about the failed mission to track CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere – NASA, February 24, 2009

Five Things About the Orbiting Carbon Observatory,” NASA, February 20, 2009

The Global Carbon Cycle, Woods Hole Research Center

Launch Mishap Ends OCO Missions,” NASA, February 24, 2009

OCO’s Spacecraft and Instruments – NASA

Video: “Taurus Launches With OCO Spacecraft,” NASA

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