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Mad Scientess Jane Expat

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OCO is a no-go [20090224|13:47]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[the weather today is |gutted]

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was lost early this morning. The capsule holding the satellite failed to open during launch, and the entire assembly fell into the ocean.

A video of the launch can be viewed here.

A great many friends and colleagues of mine and omniana's worked on this mission. It was supposed to help study climate change by providing accurate measurements of carbon dioxide sources and sinks on the planet. They had been working on it before my time at JPL (2002 to 2004), which gives you some idea of the time scale on which scientists and engineers prepare for space missions. I've been lucky enough since I started in this field to work on missions that have already succeeded in reaching their orbits and providing usable data, but if I stay in it, I know the chances are that I'll invest years in preparing for a mission that fails at launch.

I'm quite upset about this. I can only imagine how my friends must feel today.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: chickenfeet2003
2009-02-24 14:05 (UTC)
I suspect the oil companies. Clearly sabotage.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:28 (UTC)
I don't even want to contemplate that possibility. It'll make me too angry.
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[User Picture]From: impix
2009-02-24 14:22 (UTC)
^^
this.

thats horrible though :(
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:31 (UTC)
Yes. I'm pretty sure many of my old colleagues will be philosophical about it since they've obviously all got other interests. There's also a Japanese satellite called GOSAT that's currently on a similar sort of campaign. But it doesn't have nearly the resolution or the coverage that OCO was supposed to have. It's terribly disappointing.
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[User Picture]From: ironed_orchid
2009-02-24 15:10 (UTC)
Damn.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:34 (UTC)
It's a blow for remote sensing in atmospheric science, for sure. These projects never get anywhere near the money nor the resources of the "glory" projects in space science. It's possible that it may be rebuilt, but it'll take years. The ESA Cluster mission that I used to work on blew up on its first launch in 1996, and it took five years for that to be rebuilt.
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[User Picture]From: ironed_orchid
2009-02-25 03:00 (UTC)
Space is sexy, but it seems like funding bodies have their priorities upside down.
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[User Picture]From: wiggyfish
2009-02-24 15:24 (UTC)
I just heard about that on the news. What happens when a launch fails? Can the project be rebuilt, or is the project generally scrapped?

I have the impression that the project just ends with a clunk (or a foosh), but I can't quite get my head around the idea of scrapping a long term project because the hardware has been lost. It seems like the preparatory research and design should be the hard part, and the expensive part, so that as long as the design isn't the reason a project fails, there should be provisions to rebuild and relaunch. Maybe a reserved pool of funds at the institution or agency level -- a sort of insurance -- rather than padded budgets for each mission? I don't know.

Basically, I think I'm missing something, and would really like to be set straight if you've got the energy.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:45 (UTC)
Reactions to launch failures vary. You're right that a lot of mission money gets spent on spacecraft development, but there isn't normally much of a cushion in the event of launch failure. Most spacecraft systems are built with full redundancy - the launch is one of the few big the single-point failures for which it's just not possible to have a contingency. (Launches are also terribly expensive.) I'd assume some money had already been earmarked for post-launch support. I don't know whether or not it's possible for that money to be diverted into reconstruction.

The ESA Cluster mission was rebuilt after the first launch failed in 1996. It took five years to be relaunched, but considering that it was under development for about fifteen prior to the first launch attempt, five years is pretty swift to construct, test and launch four spacecraft. I don't know if OCO has a high enough profile at NASA to make a bid for money to relaunch and support the spacecraft. It's an Earth Science mission, and the budget for earth science is a fraction of that for Space Science.
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[User Picture]From: repoman
2009-02-24 15:51 (UTC)
I read about the failure in the NY Times this morning. Of all the missions to have an issue, this is the one that didn't deserve this fate. Saying that sounds a bit cruel, in that some project does deserve to fail. I guess I think about what this satellite was designed to do and it's a pretty big deal for all of us...

The interesting thing for me was looking at the people in the control room when things were going badly. I expected to see some kind of reaction to what was happening, but they just sat there. I guess the hallmark to professionalism...
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:48 (UTC)
It's also pretty cheap compared to the big space missions.

Fortunately, the Japanese mission GoSat was launched about a month ago to make similar measurements, and it's been successfully commissioned. OCO was supposed to make much higher resolution measurements and have greater temporal coverage, so it's still a big blow to the scientists, but at least there's something up there that might help.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:49 (UTC)
As I said to wiggyfish, I'm fairly certain some money had been set aside to cover post-launch support, but whether or not it could be diverted to reconstruction/relaunch and if it'd be enough, I don't know.
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[User Picture]From: inahandbasket
2009-02-24 18:54 (UTC)
oof.
:-(

Is there insurance against these things happening to rebuild the hardware?
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:54 (UTC)
I'm fairly sure the answer to that is no. There are many procedures in place to try and ensure that launches go smoothly, and the spacecraft themselves are usually built with (as near to full) redundancy as they can be. But as I mentioned above, it's certain that money had been put aside to cover post-launch support. Possibly that money can be diverted to reconstruction costs.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2009-02-24 18:59 (UTC)
That's interesting. I read that this morning and knew that you would be posting about it. I am sorry for your friends. I know what it is like to really invest yourself in a project that never launches taking years worth of work with it. All the time I spent in Hong Kong, not one line of code we wrote was used. Ever...

I am so sorry for your friends.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-02-24 20:57 (UTC)
Your Hong Kong experience actually sounds much worse. At least my friends have gotten a lot of publications out of all the preparatory modeling work they did for OCO. It's been a big part of the making of some of their careers, and it won't go to waste. Even if OCO doesn't get rebuilt, the next mission will benefit from their studies.
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[User Picture]From: nationofsheep
2009-02-24 21:20 (UTC)
That's definitely pretty good to get career results. And while the work didn't get used, the only reason IBM just picked me up is because of the work I did in HK.
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