After the original Orbital Carbon Observatory crashed into the ocean, and the first attempt at launching the replacement observatory was scrubbed yesterday with less than a minute left in the countdown, we finally have a satellite capable of tracking carbon in our atmosphere. I was there.
I'm at the Vandenberg Airforce Base in California, part of the NASA Social team covering the launch of the Orbital Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO2), an Earth-observing satellite tasked with monitoring carbon distribution in the atmosphere. Unlike most sequels, the second attempt at launching the replacement observatory was a far better story than either the ill-fated launch of the original satellite, or the cliffhanger-failure of the first attempt at launching this particular satellite.
The original observatory was lost during launch back in 2009 when a failure of the fairings prevented separation of the payload and rocket. When the rocket completed its ballistic trajectory crashing into the ocean, it carried the satellite with it, destroying years of effort and millions of dollars of instruments.
Construction of the replacement observatory, OCO2, began a year and one month later. Now, more than a decade since the project started, its ready to join a constellation of Earth-observing satellites tasked with monitoring our planet. The Orbital Carbon Observatory will track carbon dioxide distribution in our atmosphere, seeing how concentrations shift in response to environment, time, and other variables. For the first time, we'll be quantifying the locations and processes key to carbon sequestration, guiding future researchers into the most important or mysterious carbon sources and sinks on our planet.
With some satellite personnel working on the project since the original design phase nearly a decade and a half ago, the anticipation for the launch of OCO2 has been electrifying. The satellite needs to be placed in front of and just below an existing constellation of polar-orbiting satellites known as the A-train, which means the satellite needs to be launched within a scant 30-second launch window starting at 2:56:44 am in the morning.
The first window was on July 1st, positioning the Delta II launch vehicle as an exuberant start to Canada Day. Excited and eager, I trekked out to a field on the outskirts of Lompoc, California with a mass of residents and other NASA Social participants. We packed the bleachers, with a hushed crowd hanging on every radio confirmation that systems were good to go. We were swaddled in fog, the observable universe fading out a stone's throw away. Everyone followed the countdown with bated breath and fingers crossed, passing jars of peanuts around and around to keep up a Jet Propulsion Laboratory tradition dating back to the days of the Ranger program.
Everything was going great, excitement palatable in a cascade of "Go!", "Clear!", and "Ready." as mission control worked its way down the launch readiness checklist. When a voice called out "Hold!" with less than a minute left in the countdown, citing a problem with a water flow system, ripples of disbelief followed by shocked realization travelled through the crowd. With a mere 30-second launch window, any delay, no matter how slight or repairable, was enough to scrub the flight. Disappointed and exhausted, we staggered back into the fog and wound our way home, wondering just how long it would take to repair the launch pad infrastructure.
After crashing into sleep for a handful of hours, anticipation drove me back to wakefulness to check in on mission status. Optimistic that plumbing was more tractable than most trouble-shooting in rocket science, NASA declared the mission was clear to make a second attempt at the next launch window at 2:56 am on July 2nd.
By late in the afternoon, exhaustion finally caught up with me, and I slumped into sleep to catch a bit of rest before returning to the fog-shrouded launch location. A loud rumble invaded my dreams at 11 pm, jolting me awake in a panic that it was a rocket's rumble carrying OCO2 into orbit. After frantically confirming that the observatory was most decidedly earthbound until hours in the future, I was left confounded about what type of vehicle could have produced such an epic rumble. I failed to find either a train running through the motel parking lot or a local teenager modding his car with an external a jet engine, leaving me with no other plausible scenarios to explain the sound. Relieved if worried, I settled back to wait out the last few hours before the second launch attempt.
The weather was just as frustrating by the time 1:30 rolled around on Wednesday morning. Like the night before, NASA was projecting a 0% probability of weather-induced launch delay, yet the entire universe was condensed down to a clammy sphere of visibility.
The crowd was substantially smaller — instead of packing in hip-to-hip, the bleachers were less than half-full. Along with yet more containers of lucky-peanuts, we started our own tradition with space-themed candies, passing around Starbursts, Milky Ways, and Orbit gum to set the theme. Anticipation was softer with more laughter, the crowd constantly teasing that all we needed for a successful launch was more peanuts. We kept chatting right over the radio checks, with organic silences creeping in just in time to catch the major countdown hold-points. Songs broke out, first a rendition of Y.M.C.A modified to O.C.O.2, then a rip of the world cup chant, crooning "We believe that we will launch!"
It wasn't until the launch readiness check that we settled in to listen along. When the water flow check was confirmed with a confident "Go!" we burst out cheering, happy to make it past the previous night's error. Finally, the moment of glory, the countdown from 5 seconds to ignition. In utter silence and stillness, we peered into the fog.
While on the first night prowling out to the viewing area felt like a scene out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the second night the fog was thinner and brighter. Alas, that made absolutely no substantial difference to visibility. When the rocket went off, we saw absolutely nothing. Not the slightest hint of a glimmer of light anywhere pierced the fog. Realization of the massive anticlimactic letdown triggered ripples of laughter, the nervous energy of the past few days fuelling the release.
Then the rocket's rumble arrived, a growling billow building in volume, cutting through laughter in an assertion of dominance.
In the subsequent silence, radio chatter resumed. Each rocket stage was performing perfectly — minutes after launch, the rocket was somewhere over Baja; moments later, the payload had successfully separated from the booster rockets. Milestone after milestone rolled in, first the rocket then the satellite performing every stage exactly as planned. after more than a decade of anticipation and effort, the Orbital Carbon Observatory was finally going to be in orbit.
It's hard to feel disappointment in the wake of a totally successful launch. In fourteen years of assisting with public viewings of launches out of Vandenberg Airforce Base, this is the first time that Jan Kays has ever witnessed a launch where we couldn't see even a trace of a shimmer in the notorious summer fog, marking this as a historic let down. And I don't care.
The launch succeeded, and the observatory is safely in orbit. In the time it's taken me to write this up, it called home, establishing communications with Earth. The solar panels unfolded, and have started to recharge the on-board battery. All indications are that we've got a completely healthy, functional satellite in orbit, awaiting instructions. I could not be happier right now.
In just a few more months of tests, verifications, calibrations, and orbital nudges, this satellite is going to be providing a wholly new data stream about our planet. For once, the sequel is much, much better than the original.