The crash was a scientific black eye: A rocket carrying the $209 million Orbital Carbon Observatory satellite took a dive into the ocean when it was supposed to be lofted into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in February.
The satellite was meant as a first test of technology designed to track carbon emissions from orbit.
But according to a UC Irvine climate scientist, the loss of the satellite leaves the nation — and the world — in a bit of a jam.
Even if the nations of the world agree in coming months on a treaty to control greenhouse gas emissions, believed responsible for global warming, the United States and other nations have no way to independently verify whether the treaty is working, or being obeyed by individual nations, said Michael Prather, an expert in climate modeling at UCI.
“Right now, it’s impossible,” Prather said.
A letter sent last week by a nationwide group of experts that includes Prather and UC Irvine climate scientist James Randerson urges NASA’s new administrator, Charles Bolden, to launch a new version of the satellite, known as OCO for short. The project is competing, however, with a variety of other missions in need of funding.
“NASA has a whole bunch of Earth System Science missions, with different communities behind many,” Prather said. “The earth science community already established a pecking order, so to speak, for the sequence of satellite launches.”
Prather said he knows the OCO satellite was not actually intended to verify climate treaties. Its real mission was to map carbon emission mainly from the earth’s land surfaces.
But the spacecraft also was capable of monitoring large sources of greenhouse gas emissions, such as power plants or cities, Prather said.
While its two-year lifespan would not have been long enough to do a lot of climate treaty verification, it could have demonstrated the capability of future satellites to monitor emissions globally from space, Prather said.
Without independent measurements from space, any such treaty would be verified in the usual way: totting up emission reductions called for in the treaty, and asking each nation to provide data on whether various businesses and government agencies had met their emission-reduction obligations.
But such complicated procedures are prone to error, and while they would include present-day surface measurements, those have limited reach, Prather said. It would also be very difficult to check emissions from nations that refused to sign the treaty.
Prather, Randerson and the other scientists are part of a National Research Council Committee on Methods for Estimating Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which is preparing a National Academies report on treaty monitoring and verification.
The letter, however, signed by the 13-member committee’s chairman, Stephen W. Pacala, was sent before the report was finished because NASA, dealing with scarce funding, is now making decisions about which programs to make priorities.
Prather hopes to help persaude Bolden to support resurrecting a new version of OCO.
“This will be a political science battle, not a science battle,” said Prather, who for years has been an author of climate reports from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Treaty verification can mean as little as, you follow the rules, to it’s actually working. I think it behooves us on the science side to make sure it’s actually working.”
(Artist’s rendering of OCO satellite courtesy NASA.)