- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) | A NASA mission to monitor greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere from space ended Tuesday when a satellite plunged into the ocean near Antarctica minutes after the launch. An equipment malfunction was apparently to blame, officials said.

The loss of the $280 million mission came a month after Japan launched the world’s first spacecraft to track emissions of the gases suspected of changing the Earth’s climate. The failure dealt a blow to NASA, which had hoped to send up its own satellite to measure carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas said to be behind human-caused global warming.

The crash came just after liftoff from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast. A Taurus XL rocket carrying the Orbiting Carbon Observatory blasted off as scheduled shortly before 2 a.m.

Three minutes into the flight, the nose cone protecting the satellite failed to come off as designed, NASA officials said. The extra weight from the cover caused the rocket to dive back to Earth, splashing into the ocean near Antarctica, where a group of environment ministers from more than a dozen countries met Monday to get the latest science on global climate.

“Certainly for the science community, it’s a huge disappointment,” said John Brunschwyler, Taurus project manager for Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which built the rocket and satellite. “It’s taken so long to get here.”

The 986-pound satellite was supposed to be placed into a polar orbit about 400 miles high. The project was nine years in the making, and the mission was supposed to last two years.

The observatory was NASA’s first satellite dedicated to monitoring carbon dioxide on a global scale. Measurements collected by the satellite were expected to improve climate models and help researchers determine where the greenhouse gas originates and how much is being absorbed by forests and oceans.

“Wow. Bad news this morning,” said Scott Denning, an atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and a member of the team that planned to analyze data from the satellite. “We put years into getting ready for this.”

Carbon dioxide is transparent to the ultraviolet radiation that the Earth receives from the sun but is opaque to the infrared rays that Earth radiates back, which means that the gas effectively “traps” heat like a greenhouse does. Higher levels could warm up the planet in dangerous ways.

Scientists now depend on 282 land-based stations - and scattered instrumented aircraft flights - to monitor carbon dioxide at low altitudes.

Engineers will look at existing spacecraft parts to see whether it makes sense to build another carbon observatory, said Mike Freilich, earth science division director at NASA headquarters.

Graeme Stephens, another member of the Colorado State team, said researchers will ask NASA to try again.

A team of experts will investigate the loss of the satellite. It’s the first failure of a launch with a Taurus rocket since 2001. That year, a NASA ozone-monitoring satellite and a cargo of human ashes aboard a Taurus rocket fell into the Indian Ocean after veering off course during launch.

Tuesday’s failure put on hold the summer launch of another NASA satellite, Glory, which will measure soot and aerosols in the atmosphere, said launch manager Charles Dovale.

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