By now you’ve probably heard about NASA’s carbon-measuring satellite, the one that went kerplunk into the ocean near Antarctica in a disastrous launch attempt Tuesday morning. I was feeling bummed that my “gee, this is going to be really cool and useful” pre-launch story is now very much irrelevant. Then I realized NASA’s team of scientists and engineers, many of whom spent eight years on this mission, lost a whole lot more. And then I realized the biggest loss — in new scientific understanding — affects us all: rich, poor, young, old, threatened wildlife … the children.

Scientists hoped the Orbiting Carbon Observatory would lead to great advances in understanding the earth’s carbon sinks, the repositories of carbon dioxide no one has yet accounted for. ClimateWire has more on the scientific potential lost in the crash:

The $278 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory was designed to monitor how CO2 enters and exits the Earth’s atmosphere — hoping to yield a picture of a rhythm that is much like taking a breath. Forests and oceans absorb the greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, while burning fossil fuels and decaying plant and animal life send more back …

But while scientists have a basic understanding of the carbon cycle, they can’t account for all the CO2 humans produce, said Scott Denning, a professor at Colorado State University who worked on the NASA project’s science team. “The basic idea is that between the oceans and the land, about half of the fossil-fuel carbon dioxide is being taken up and not going into the air,” he said. “We need to understand that better to predict what’s going to happen in the future.”

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The crash yesterday morning of NASA’s carbon observatory is going to make getting those answers more difficult, scientists said.

And a good metaphor on the value of collecting measurements from the atmosphere:

Using only measurements of CO2 levels taken from the Earth’s surface is like trying to map New York City by standing in the middle of Manhattan, said Paul Wennberg, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who operates a series of ground-based measuring stations. “You get an idea there are streets and buildings, but it’s very hard to imagine what the broader image looks like,” he said. “What [satellites] do is provide that context.”

It’s too early to say what’s next, NASA officials said yesterday.

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“OCO was an important mission to measure critical elements of the carbon cycle,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth science programs. “Over the next several days, weeks and months we are going to carefully evaluate how to move forward and advance the science.”

That will include examining instruments already in orbit to see which can be modified to collect more information about CO2 in the atmosphere. The failure also brings heightened interest to Japan’s CO2-measuring satellite, Ibuki, launched in January. It will provide different but “complimentary” information to what the NASA satellite would have collected, program manager John Brunschwyler said.

NASA is currently without an administrator, and its funding situation will determine whether it rebuilds the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, says ClimateWire:

… ultimately, the agency’s decision to rebuild or replace the observatory likely hinges on whether it can use money from the recent economic stimulus bill, which included $400 million for climate research at NASA, or whether Congress would be willing to include money for the project in upcoming spending legislation.

If you’re into this sort of thing, has a good background piece on the choices President Obama must make about the future direction of NASA.

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