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Charlene AndersonDecember 13, 2009

Copenhagen Needs More Space, Part 2 The Orbiting Carbon Observatory Must Fly Again

In our continuing saga of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), the scene now switches from Copenhagen to Washington, D.C.

This week, a conference committee, made up of members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, worked out NASA's fiscal year 2010 budget and agreed to give the space agency $18.7 billion for the year.

Among their directives to NASA was that the agency spend $50 million to begin work on a replacement for OCO, which crashed back to Earth in February after its launch vehicle failed.

Here's the good news: half that amount, $25 million, is additional money for NASA. The bad news: the other half comes out of the existing budget for the Science Mission Directorate, which raises the specter of money being diverted from other Earth science missions. But if and how other missions will be affected, no one yet knows for certain.

So, does this get us closer to an orbiting observatory that can monitor carbon dioxide sources and sinks? Can such a satellite help ensure compliance to whatever agreement, deal, treaty, or whatever comes out of the Copenhagen talks next week?

Most likely. OCO will be the pathfinder for a carbon-monitoring system, and what we learn from OCO -- both its scientific discoveries and its engineering lessons -- can guide the design, building, and operation of a next-generation observatory. As Principal Investigator David Crisp says, that satellite can be "like a cop standing on the side of the road with a radar gun. When people know he's there, they slow down and obey the law."

With the $50 million, the OCO team can begin work in earnest to replace their satellite. "Over the next few weeks, we will work closely with NASA HQ to identify activities and investments that will reduce the cost, risk, and schedule for the reflight," Crisp said. "The $50 million funding advance will allow us to retain critical team members and to purchase a few critical high-risk, long-lead and obsolete parts," he added.

But, unfortunately, this money is not enough to start the clock on the 28 months the OCO team needs to build and launch their satellite. We're closer to seeing a new OCO fly, but don't make your reservations for the launch just yet.

"Because we will be building a "carbon copy" of the observatory, all of the designs, plans, and manufacturing drawings are already available," Crisp explained. "The first major step in the 28 month build schedule would therefore be to initiate contracts to procure all of the components for the launch vehicle, satellite, and instrument that are on the schedule

Read more: Earth observing missions, mission status

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