Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Nasa's Orbiting Carbon Observartory 2 Launches into Space in a Dramatic Liftoff

This morning NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO2) launched into Earth orbit on a Delta 2 rocket. I've posted the video of the launch here, as it was one of the most dramatic rocket launches I've ever seen (and I watch most of them).

When the engines ignited there was a huge flash, which for a moment made me think the rocket had exploded.  Fortunately, a second later the Delta 2 soared into the sky, completing a flawless launch and orbital insertion within the hour.

Losing this rocket would have been incredibly sad, as the first Orbiting Carbon Observatory was lost during launch in 2009. The protective faring (the pointy bit on the front of the rocket) on its Taurus XL launcher failed to open, resulting in the rocket being too heavy to reach orbit.

NASA quickly ordered a replacement, OCO2 to be built, a process complicated by the fact that many components were no longer being produced. When a second Taurus XL rocket failed due to problems with the fairing, the OCO2 was switched to the ultra-reliable Delta 2. Today, five years later, that Delta 2 delivered OCO2 to it's place in the "A-train", a large formation of Earth-observing satellites.

Artist's impression of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO2), which launched this morning on a mission to precisely measure the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA.
The OCO2's mission is to precisely measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere below it, It has a high enough resolution to distinguish both regional  variation, identifying areas which produce or remove CO2, and seasonal variation, investigating how the CO2 levels change with time.

OCO2's only instrument is a spectrometer, designed to split the light coming through the atmosphere to distinguish the particular colours emitted from CO2. It is so precise that it will be able to measure changes in CO2 levels of less than 2 parts in a million.

Hopefully over the next few years the OCO2 will provide a new and important insight into this vital component of the atmosphere. But for now, enjoy the video of its incredible launch!

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