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WSU professor in ‘shock’ after satellite crash

Fri., March 6, 2009

He had worked on project for six years

What should have been among the most satisfying moments of George Mount’s career became one of the most disappointing as the project he and other climate researchers had worked on for six years crashed into the Indian Ocean last week.

Mount, a professor in the Washington State University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., on Feb. 24 for the launch of a satellite that would accurately measure carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere.

But instead of celebrating the successful launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, the scientists and engineers involved in the $278 million project watched as the satellite fell from the sky.

“I couldn’t believe it, then I went into shock, and then I felt numb,” said Mount, who has worked on the project since 2003.

Now NASA has launched an investigation into what went wrong about 10 minutes after the Taurus XL rocket carrying the satellite took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Apparently a fairing that shields the scientific payload failed to separate. With the extra weight, the rocket could not reach orbit.

Had the satellite, known as OCO, deployed, it would have provided information critical to understanding the effects of manmade carbon dioxide on global warming. Built by Orbital Sciences of Dallas, OCO would have monitored both the sources of carbon dioxide and the points, known as “sinks,” where the greenhouse gas is absorbed back into the biosphere by forests or oceans, for example.

About half the human-produced carbon dioxide ends up in the atmosphere where it is accumulating at the “substantial” rate of about 1.9 percent a year, Mount said; the other half is absorbed by the sinks.

“Although the sources are well-known, the sinks are not,” said Mount, whose team was involved in the design, testing and calibration of the OCO. “We were going to be involved in the data analysis and scientific interpretation of the data.”

Mount said the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on a proposal to rebuild the spacecraft and fly it.

“If that happens, WSU will be involved,” he said. The question is what it will cost to build another OCO. “The one that went in the ocean was an awfully fine instrument.”

Reach Kevin Graman at (509) 459-5433 or

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