Despite a decade of development, including the production of two satellites, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 was launched in July with a basic design flaw that was never spotted.
Scientists and engineers on the project have ridden an emotional roller coaster. In 2009, a rocket failure doomed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, their first attempt at a carbon-mapping probe. Its replacement, OCO-2, launched successfully. But after the JPL turned on the main instrument — a trio of spectrometers that measure sunlight light reflecting off Earth’s surface — the team discovered a problem in OCO-2’s data. They eventually determined that it was caused by a design flaw that reduced the amount of light entering the instrument during one mode of operation. The problem dated to 2004 and had never been caught in testing, says JPL’s David Crisp, the science team leader of the OCO-2 mission. “It was a stupid mistake. Embarrassing to the instrument designer and to me,” he says.
This flaw was apparently in both OCO satellites and was never noticed.
Fortunately, they have improvised a work-around that is allowing the spacecraft to get its data, which interestingly shows the highest concentrations of CO2 are coming not from the U.S. and the First World but from poorer parts of Africa and South America (caused by “burning savannas and forests,” not SUVs) and from China.
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