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NASA Edge | Launch of JPL’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2

Uploaded 07/25/2014

Launch of JPL’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2

NASA successfully launched its first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. PDT) Wednesday. Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) will be NASA’s first dedicated Earth remote sensing satellite to study atmospheric carbon dioxide from Space. OCO-2 will be collecting space-based global measurements of atmospheric CO2 with the precision, resolution, and coverage needed to characterize sources and sinks on regional scales. OCO-2 will also be able to quantify CO2 variability over the seasonal cycles year after year.



– Charlie Bolden
– John Demko
– Ralph Basilio
– Annmarie Eldering
– Mikael Gunson

FRANKLIN:  You’re watching NASA EDGE.

CHRIS:  An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

FRANKLIN:  We’re here live at the Vandenberg Air Force Base at the Spacecraft Support Complex, which is about 11 miles by car from the Space Launch Complex II where OCO-2 is on the Delta 2 preparing for launch.

CHRIS:  Yes, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory -2.  It’s going to be the first NASA remote sensing satellite that’s going to be studying carbon dioxide.

FRANKLIN:  Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to go over to Space Launch Complex 2.  While I was over there, I had an opportunity to run into NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.  He is just off set right now and will be our first guest on our show.

CHRIS:  Tell us from your perspective the importance of this mission.

CHARLIE:  It’s critically important not just for NASA and the nation but for the entire world.  It’s the first time that we’re actually going to be able to look from space and take very detailed measurements of carbon dioxide output but also what are called carbon sinks.  Where’s the carbon going?  Those are questions we hope will help us understand changes in the environment and the like.  Since we believe CO2 is the big, greenhouse gas that’s contributing to most of our problems right now.

CHRIS:  I understand you’ve been following this mission closely.  You’ve been to some of the facilities.  You actually had a chance yesterday to be right next to the Delta-2

CHARLIE:  We were out on the pad prior to rollback.  They let us go up onto the pad itself.  It was really interesting to have an opportunity to look at the various components on the rocket and have the technicians, they guys that work at it everyday, tell you what they were.  We don’t get to see a Delta-2 very often anymore.  We’re going to launch this and then we have three more flights on the Delta-2 before the inventory is gone.  Unless there are some other customers out there then these are going to be the last few flights on the Delta-2.  It’s been an incredible vehicle for a ULA.

CHRIS:  The Delta-2 has had a great track record.  It’s a very successful rocket and it’s launched many spacecraft into orbit.

CHARLIE:  I like to say it’s a launch vehicle that has a sweet spot for medium class payloads.  And I learned this yesterday, it was one ideally suited for global positioning system satellites.  Over time, they’ve grown in size and complexity.  So, they kind of grew out of the Delta-2 class and it leaves just our Earth Science missions that are just the right size that fit into the sweet spot for the Delta-2.

CHRIS:  John, what is your role here at Vandenberg?

JOHN:  There is a small group of NASA employees and a support contractor that supports us.  We have several facilities on Vandenberg Air Force Base including the Space Launch 2/Delta 2 Launch Complex.  We are Kennedy Space Center employees.  We manage and maintain the facilities here for the launches we do off the west coast for NASA Science missions.

CHRIS:  We have some video of the Delta-2 that’s being used for tonight’s launch.  Talk to us through this footage.  What is going on here?

JOHN:  Now, we’re looking at the payload fairings that are being taken out to the launch site and being hoisted up into the tower.  The mobile service tower at the very top has a white room, which is a clean facility that’s for processing the fairings and the spacecraft right before it is put onto the rocket.  Now, we’re looking at the first stage that’s been hauled out to the base of the tower.  The guys are rolling the transporter out as the crane lifts the rocket it up; the crane and the mobile service tower will lift the rocket until it’s erect; then move it in and set it down on the launch mount.  They’ll actually bolt it down to the launch mount.  What we’re looking at here now is the inner stage was being lowered down.  That’s basically an empty can that allows for the receiving of the second stage.  Now, we’re looking at the solid rocket motors.  There are three on this mission that come in one at a time.  They guys are using the dolly and the crane to hoist those to vertical and lift them and place them one by one and bolt them to the side of the first stage.  Here, we’re looking at the bottom of the second stage engine just as it’s getting lifted up into the tower.  Then it will be brought into the tower and lowered into that inner stage, empty can piece that’s at the top of the first stage that receives that second stage engine.  Now, we’re looking at the spacecraft arriving.  This is OCO-2 in it’s shipping container having been trucked in from Arizona.

CHRIS:  Okay.

JOHN:  This is late April time frame.  It’s being backed into the processing facility that’s also on Vandenberg not far from Slick 2.  It was bagged in its shipping container.  They’re removing the bag now.  This is the very beginning of a couple months long process of preparing the spacecraft, testing the spacecraft, final installation, final preparation.  Here, we see it being loaded onto the work stand and actually depressing the separation rings that will be used at payload separation that will push the spacecraft away from the rocket.

CHRIS:  Okay.

JOHN:  Now, we’re looking at the pedals of the transportation can that are being installed around the base of the work stand.  That forms the bottom of the can.  You see the top of the white cylindrical can that’s being lifted by the crane and brought over to the top of the spacecraft and lowered down onto the spacecraft.

CHRIS:  Gotcha.

JOHN:  That will complete a can that is a protective transportation container for the spacecraft…

CHRIS:  Out to the pad?

JOHN:  …as it goes out to the pad on this transporter.  This is about June 14th, I believe.  In the early morning hours the team rolls out of the processing facility.

CHRIS:  Foggy, it looks like once again.

JOHN:  Yes, good old Vandenberg weather, not disappointing.  The can goes out to the base of the mobile service tower.  Again, they drop the hook from the MST crane.  They pick that can off the transporter and lift it up into the tower and set it down on top of the rocket, bolting that down to the rocket and remove the transportation can.  Now, we’re looking at the fairings; both fairings being brought around the spacecraft.  They close those fairings, the two halves of the fairings around the spacecraft.  That provides the protective, aerodynamic shell at the top of the rocket to protect that spacecraft during the first five minutes of flight.

CHRIS:  That seems like a lot of work.

JOHN:  Yes, it is a lot of work.  You bet.

CHRIS:  I like that resident manager because you’re the man here.  You’re the man in charge.

JOHN:  I try to keep things running.

CHRIS:  John, thank you so much for being here.

JOHN:  My pleasure.

CHRIS:  You’re hospitality has been generous.  Thank you for all the logistic support that we need to hear on the show.

JOHN:  You’re welcome.

CHRIS:  We’re going to turn our attention to the science aspect of OCO-2.  Blair was at JPL and had a chance to talk with Project Manager Ralph Basilio.

BLAIR:  We’re here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory talking to Ralph Bailio, the Project Manager for OCO-2.  Ralph, we’re very excited to be here for the launch.  I’m really excited about OCO-2.  I was wondering.  Can you tell me what OCO’s primary mission?

RALPH:  The science mission for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory -2 is basically to get retrieved estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide, precise measurements of CO2 because we want to be able to fundamentally be able to identify, what we call, emitters of CO2 and also absorbers of CO2; what we also call sources and sinks.  We know we have about a 60-year data record that strongly suggests about half of the CO2 that is being admitted through human activity, specifically fossil fuel emissions, stays in the atmosphere.  The other half is being absorbed somewhere.  Maybe it’s in the northern boreal forests; maybe it’s in the southern oceans.  We’re trying to find out where these sinks are of atmospheric CO2 so we can better understand, better study those sinks of CO2.  Some other fundamental questions we have with these sinks are:  what’s going to happen over time?  Are theses sinks going to become less efficient?  Are they going to become saturated?  Is more CO2 going to stay in the atmosphere because of that?  And is that going to further accelerate the global climate change process?  These are some of the very fundamental questions that we want to be able to answer with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory -2 mission.

BLAIR:  This is an amazing amount of data you’re trying to acquire.  I’m wondering how long will OCO-2 have to fly in space to accomplish its mission.

RALPH:  Well, the nominal or normal mission is two years.  It’s two years because we want to be able to see seasonal variations.  As you know, that normal cycle has CO2 concentration levels varying.  For example, plants die; plants grow.  We want to be able to see that trend.  We also want to be able to see a longer-term data records.  So, two years is the normal or nominal mission.  We really hope we’re going to be able to have an extended mission.  Maybe have a 5-, 8-year mission.

BLAIR:  That’s sort of that built in conservative approach, right?

RALPH:  Yes, that’s correct.

BLAIR:  We have a track record of having these satellites up there much longer.

RALPH:  That’s correct.  We have a very good track record.  I worked on a project called CloudSat many years ago, but just this past April 28, 2014, we celebrated our 8 year anniversary in space.  That mission was only designed to operate for a few years but it’s still doing it’s thing, collecting data for us.

BLAIR:  Some people are going to start asking questions about how conservative you actually are.  You’re getting some really good life spans on these missions.

RALPH:  Yeah, that’s correct.

BLAIR:  You mentioned CloudSat.  Obviously, OCO-2 is flying with other satellites.  I believe the A-Train.

RALPH:  CloudSat and other satellites are flying in what’s called the EOS or Earth Operating System afternoon constellation or A-train for short.  Once OCO-2 is launched into space, we are going to maneuver the satellite or observatory up into the operational altitude and basically be the front or lead for this constellation of other satellite systems.

BLAIR:  Was there some internal controversy about taking the driver’s seat?

RALPH:  Oh, no.  It was basically we are following the same concept we developed on the original OCO mission.  This mission was originally conceived of in, I think, 2002.  We launched the original OCO mission in February 2009; same science objectives.  Unfortunately, we did have a launch vehicle payload fairing anomaly that prevented the observatory from being placed into proper earth orbit.  It basically fell out of the ski, burned up, and it was lost.  We have been working with our NASA sponsors, working with the administration since 2009.  In March of 2010, we got the official go ahead to develop the rebuild, which is now called Orbiting Carbon Observatory -2.  We’re quite fortunate.  We feel the scientific measurements that are going to obtain from the OCO-2 mission are not just important but also a sense of urgency.  It was just recently reported in the last year that CO2 concentration levels are now at 400 parts per million, unprecedented, unheard of in the last 800,000 or more years.  So, something is obviously happening with the atmosphere.  We talk about different ways to solve problems but the primary goal for OCO-2 is just to obtain the data, get the information so we can better understand what that problem was all about.

BLAIR:  Annmarie, as I understand it OCO-2 is NASA’s first dedicated satellite to study carbon dioxide emission.  I’m wondering how does the science work for OCO-2?

ANNMARIE:  The science for OCO-2 is really about this big question that we have about where carbon dioxide goes. We have a really good understanding of carbon dioxide we emit from burning fossil fuels.  If you think about your gasoline, jet fuel and heating oil, it’s all bought, sold and taxed.  People know where it’s coming and where it’s going.  But humans emit a large amount of CO2 from these fossil fuels.  We know how much that is.  We have a few places on the globe, like you’ve maybe heard of about the Keeling Curve from Mauna Loa.  There’s a place where there’s an instrument on the ground measuring carbon dioxide.  It sees the seasonal changes and sees the growth over time, but when you do the math, and you say how much new carbon dioxide did we see this year from that measurement and how much did we emit from burning.  There’s a mismatch.  Some of it’s gone.  Where did it go?  What’s happening, we think, is half of it stays in the atmosphere but half of it is actually interacting with other parts of the Earth.  The oceans actually can dissolve carbon dioxide.  We think the plants in the ocean take some of the carbon dioxide that we emitted from fossil fuels.  But there are still big questions because every year the amount they take up is a little bit different.  So I say the oceans take it up but which ocean?  Is it the Pacific, the Atlantic, or Southern Ocean?  Those are unanswered questions.  That’s the science that we aim to answer with OCO-2.

BLAIR:  Obviously, it’s very important that OCO get this data but you can’t seem to get it from any of the other satellites that are flying.  What makes you OCO unique in that sense?

ANNMARIE:  Yes, we’re excited about OCO-2 because it’s NASA’s first mission that is just dedicated to measuring carbon dioxide and it was designed in a very specific way.  Carbon dioxide is what we call well mixed.  On average, the concentrations don’t have huge gradients, not the way some other pollutants do where you can change by order of magnitude from one spot to another.  Carbon dioxide is relatively well mixed.  To answer these sources and sinks questions, you need to be seeing everything in the atmosphere.  You need to see the stuff near the surface as well as the stuff high up.  We picked a wavelength of light, which is about 2 microns.  It’s longer than what you see but it’s only about twice or three times as long as what you see.  That has the right sensitivity that will see the carbon dioxide all the way into the atmosphere.  There are some other CO2 measurements. There are some instruments that were built for weather or pollution measuring at very long wavelengths called thermal infrared 10 microns compared to our 2.  They have sensitivity really to the higher parts of the atmosphere.  Because of some of the physics that are going on, they’re blinded near the surface because there’s not enough contrast in temperature but they’re sensitive above.  They learn about some of these long-range processes but they can’t see that much about what’s happening with that exchange at the surface.

BLAIR:  How is that total picture, that total column, how are you going to use that data to make all these conclusions about carbon dioxide?

ANNMARIE:  That’s a good question.  What will happen every day we’re flying OCO-2 around the Earth, it goes around about 14 ½ time a day, we’re looking down and collecting data.  We’ll actually have about a million spectra that we collect every day.  The orbit that we’re in is a sun synchronous and it repeats.  After 16 days, your orbit is exactly where it was before.  When I think about this, I always think kind of in 16 days of data.  In 16 days, you’ll get a full picture of the Earth with about 150 km between one set of measurements and another.  It gives you this kind of sampling of the globe.  We call ourselves a sampling mission not a mapping mission because we don’t give you a picture.  I can’t show you a map of California with measurements all over it.  We’ll have this data set but then when you think again about carbon dioxide it has these sources and these sinks.  It’s exchanging with the atmosphere but what else is going on?  Winds are moving all this stuff around the globe.  I need to think about all of those processes and what that means to the carbon dioxide I measured.  In the end, we usually work with this data with global modelers.  Modelers are scientists who represent the exchange of carbon dioxide and the transport in the atmosphere through their models.  They get all of the physics in the model and then we provide them with some measurements of the carbon dioxide that can be compared with the model data.  It’s very hard to interpret our data alone because transport is also playing a big role.  So really, when you say where’s the carbon go, I won’t tell you that myself but in collaboration with those modelers we’re going to answer that question.

BLAIR:  I’m just wondering if you could tell me whether or not we’re going to get carbon credits back for flying OCO-2?

ANNMARIE:  I don’t know.  If you do the math on the energy we burn, I’m not sure we’re in the carbon credit world but I’m driving my Prius and trying to cut down on my fossil fuel burning.

BLAIR:  Who knows?  We might find a better way to determine that carbon footprint if we understand this exchange better.

ANNMARIE:  Exactly.

BLAIR:  Mike, I’m very excited to learn more about OCO-2 and the data that it’s getting.

MIKE:  Just right there, we’ve got to get it right.  It’s O-C-O because every good chemist knows it’s oxygen carbon oxygen, Orbiting Carbon Observatory.  High school chemistry says we should call it OCO, just as first principals.

BLAIR:  Okay, fair enough.  But your colleague, Annmarie, was much more forgiving.

BLAIR:  Is it okay to say O-CO -2 as opposed OCO-2.

ANNMARIE:  It’s an east coast, west coast thing.  We hear O-CO-2 out east.  Here on the west coast, we say OCO-2.

BLAIR:  East coast, west coast.  That’s great.

MIKE:  We can’t account for the poor education system on the east coast.  We’ve got to go for the…

BLAIR:  I tell you what.  I’ll make a compromise.  I’ll go with OCO if you can get them to change the logo because shouldn’t it technically be a subscript 2?

MIKE:  Yeah.  I think we need to get the whole redesign going and make sure that it’s really chemistry here.

BLAIR:  Alright, fair enough.  We’ll work that out later and get to the science now.  A lot of missions that we know, and a lot of satellites we have deal in raw data.  But everything I’ve read about OCO-2 is that you’ll be using assimilated data.  What exactly does it mean to use assimilated data?

MIKE:  We’re all use to the weather forecast.  That’s all based on getting data from weather balloons released around the world and satellite data.  That’s taken into a weather model.  You use a mathematical process called data assimilation.  When that data is ingested through data assimilation then they can let the model run forward and give us a 1-day, 5-day, 10-day, month long weather forecast.  Our raw data we transform it into measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide.  It’s that measurement that then gets ingested into models to learn what’s going on at the surface through data assimilation.

BLAIR:  Okay.  In other words, you do collect raw data but in terms of how it’s used it will be used in cases with assimilation.

MIKE:  That’s right.  That will be one of the very important tools that many of our colleagues in the science community have been developing, so they’ll be ready to take the raw data that we’ll provide so that we can do that underlying science.

BLAIR:  That’s just one of the things I thought was interesting.  I also noticed that you’ve got one primary instrument looking at this column but you’ve got some different modes you can use.

MIKE:  We make measurements all the time in reflected sunlight.  We’re looking at the light from the sun, hits the surface of the earth and then is reflected back to the satellite and the instrument.  In parts of the Earth we can do that over land, which is typically kind of bright.  We can do that by pointing the instrument and looking straight down at the surface.  Over the ocean, if people have flown in an aircraft over the ocean and looked down out of the windows, the ocean looks dark.  That’s because when you look straight down at the ocean, not much sunlight is reflected.  It’s really all absorbed into the ocean.  We’re very fortunate that there is a point, on the ocean surface, that a certain angle that you look where you can see the bright spot of the sun.  That’s called the glint spot.  To get data out over the ocean to complete the global picture, we’ll point the observatory to that glint spot for 16-day sections so that we can sweep out observations out over the global oceans.  We have a third mode.  Because this is one of the most difficult measurements to make of an atmospheric gas; something like a .25% uncertainty.  We have to be very careful about calibrating, and validating our measurements.  So, to help us do that, and keep us on track with our calibration and validation, there are ground sites around the world where people are making very careful measurements.  They are comparable to the ones we will make from OCO.  We have another mode to help us get these detailed inter-comparisons where we allow the observatory to look ahead at a ground point with one of those ground measurements are being made and track it for several minutes so we get thousands of observations near by.  That will give us the insight into how the measurement is working and were there any bias or uncertainties creeping in that we must account for in helping the science community use the data in understanding what’s really going on globally at the surface.

BLAIR:  This is very exciting.  We can’t wait to see OCO-2 fly and start to get these data streams.  Hopefully, we’ll learn more and more about carbon dioxide and what it means for us here on Earth.

MIKE:  We sure will.  I’m really excited about the prospect of seeing a good launch, getting to orbit, and the data stream.

MISSION CONTROL:  5, 4, 3, 2, engine start, 1, 0; and liftoff of the Delta-2 rocket with OCO-2; tracking a greenhouse gas in seek of clues to climate change.

CHRIS:  Franklin, what another great launch for the Delta-2.

FRANKLIN:  Yes, it was a beautiful launch and it was a great show.  We’d like to think all of our guests who joined us today, especially Administrator Charlie Bolden.

CHRIS:  And all the folks here at Vandenberg Air Force Base to make this show possible.

FRANKLIN:  If you want more information on the OCO-2 project, go to  You’re watching NASA EDGE.  An inside and outside look…

CHRIS:  …at all things NASA.

(c)2014 NASA-JPL-Caltech | SCVTV
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