Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)

This website had been set up for the family, friends and colleagues of Ross Salawitch and Ben Johnson to learn about OCO and follow our adventures in California as we attended the launch of OCO.

We are saddened that the NASA Orbiting Carbon Observatory failed to reach orbit following its launch on Tues, 24 Feb 2009, at approx 1:55 am PST.

This mission has been a remarkable experience for both Ross and Ben.  We are fully committed to pursuing space-borne observations of atmospheric composition, despite our deep disappointment following the failed launch.  Ross has made life-long friends forged from years of hard work in a pressure packed, challenging, yet rewarding environment.  Ben has gotten a taste of the intellectual richness of a space-borne mission.  We know that our disappointment shall pass.

Much thanks to the OCO Science Team for their passion, dedication, and commitment, to Dave Crisp and Chip Miller for their outstanding leadership, and to the many folks at JPL and NASA who believed in our vision to revolutionize understanding of the global carbon cycle.

The irony of tonight's launch failure is that the 400 persons who were on the 13 bus convoy from Santa Ynez to Vandenberg Air Force Base (about a 45 min drive) seemed to be about the last to know.  The spacecraft ascended beautifully and we watched the bright, orange glow arc through the sky until no visible trace remained.  At that point, 2 of the 4 stages had burned, and we were directed back to the buses.  We believe that the Air Force Base personnel simply wanted to call it a night, after what everyone thought was a successful launch.  Many of us knew there were 2 more stages to burn.  There were video and audio feeds of NASA TV at our viewing site, yet we were being sent back to the buses, rather assertively, before any indication of a problem emerged.  Again, we think this was simply Air Force personnel wanting to wrap things up, since the rocket could no longer be seen by the naked eye.

Several of the buses learned of the launch failure on the ~45 min ride back to the hotel.  One of our colleagues received an anguished cell phone call from his daughter in Australia.  Another bus, with NASA public affairs personnel, was in the news loop via cell phone calls and cell phone web access.  Our bus, like the majority, did not know of any trouble.  Ben was able to reach Hawaii and tried to ascertain if all 4 stages had burned.  But, the audio on his family's computer stream of the NASA feed had dropped out, and they did not know the implications of what they had seen.  I had no cell phone signal for nearly the entire ride back.

I lingered outside the hotel, saying goodbye to some colleagues who were driving back L.A. immediately after launch. When I walked into the hotel lobby, it was clear from the blank look on several hundred people's faces  that something was terribly wrong.  I quickly learned the fairing had not separated and knew also this meant we could not unfurl the solar panels.  So even if we had achieved orbit, our mission would be over once the batteries drained.

Those of us in the hotel had no contact with our colleagues inside mission control, as they were under a communications embargo.  I did receive a text message from a person inside mission control, stating only that they could have no contact with those outside the room until after the press conference.  About 40 of us lingered in the hotel lobby for about 2.5 hrs, from 2:30 am until 5:00 am, to watch the NASA press conference on a few laptops using a stream from the NASA website (the hotel does not get the NASA channel).  The pronouncement at this telecon that the observatory had not reached orbit, and likely fell into the ocean short of Antarctica, was a mark of finality to a night that was filled with an astonishing range of emotions.

It was a surreal night best shared with this remarkable photograph taken by Matt Rogers of Colorado State University (rogers@atmos.colostate.edu):

This is a time lapse photograph covering about the first five minutes of launch.  In real time, we saw an oblong orange blob scream through the sky (see video below).  The sky lit up well before the sound reached our ears (we were 1 to 2 miles from the launch pad).  We believe this picture captures the rocket moving out of our range, not the spacecraft losing altitude, although perhaps trouble had been noted by mission control computers at the end of this exposure.  Therein lies the poignancy of this remarkable photograph.

This photograph is being officially hosted by Colorado State University at:


Matt Rogers should be contacted, at rogers@atmos.colostate.edu for a high resolution version of this photo without the "burn in" of his name and affiliation.  Much thanks to Matt for allowing us to display his photo.

Below are several links to video of the launch recorded by Ben Johnson using a hand held digital camera (all links show the same content).  Ben's excitement with the launch is readily apparent:

mv4 file, should open in most browser windows (smaller file; should download more quickly)

mov file, requires (larger file; requires Quicktime to view)

video hosted by YouTube (poorest resolution of the three, but perhaps easiest to access)

Finally, for our friends and family [okay, our colleagues as well], here are a few photos from the launch site taken about 20 minutes prior to rocket ignition.  Ben is on the left.  Ross is pictured Hartmut Bösch of the University of Leicester:


As I was making my way back to bus #8, I was literally jumping with joy.  Following first light, in early April, Ben and I planned  to move to Pasadena for the next ~9 months to devote our time, energy, and scientific skills to the mission.  I kept looking to the sky thinking "wow, this is really happening".  Alas, this joy lasted only about an hour.  But, our scientific lives go on, as do our desires to obtain accurate and precise global measurements of the abundance of atmospheric CO2.  We are already back to planning, strategizing, planning, strategizing: just like the past 9 years.


Note: in the accounts given above, the first person singular reflects the experience of Ross Salawitch and the first person plural reflects the joint experiences of Ben Johnson and Ross Salawitch  (all content but the description of the launch photo) or Matt Rogers and Ross Salawitch (description of the launch photo).


Other first hand accounts of the OCO launch failure are available from:

Randy Pollock (JPL), OCO lead instrument engineer: http://blogs.jpl.nasa.gov/

Eric Ianson (NASA HQ), OCO program executive: http://blogs.nasa.gov/cm/blog/OCO%20Blog/posts/post_1235531979085.html

George Mount (WSU), OCO team member: http://www.dailyevergreen.com/story/27935

OCO team members at Colo. State Univ.: http://newsinfo.colostate.edu/index.asp?url=news_item_display&news_item_id=461696619

NY Times coverage that quotes a number of colleagues and refers to this website: http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/02/25/25climatewire-after-carbon-observatory-crashes-scientists-a-9853.html

Coverage by the Univ of Md student newspaper: http://media.www.diamondbackonline.com/media/storage/paper873/news/2009/02/27/News/were-Plotting.The.Way.Forward-3652490.shtml


A nice collection of photographs, including some close-ups of the infamous fairing, are at






We shall leave posted below our Scientific Overview, as well as a few other links:


Scientific Overview

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) will obtain high spatial resolution measurements of the abundance of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

Carbon dioxide is the most important anthropogenic (human produced) greenhouse gas (GHG), as illustrated in the figure below from the 2007 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report:

OCO consists of three custom built, extremely high resolution grating spectrometers that measure the spectral fingerprint imposed on light that is emitted by the sun, hits Earth's surface, and is collected by the telescope of the OCO instrument.  The figure below illustrates a simulated OCO spectral frame:

OCO will sample the atmosphere at very high spatial resolution, providing between 500,000 and 1,000,000 daily observations of CO2This image shows the OCO measurement grid superimposed on a well known city:

Can you identify the city that is shown?  Click here to find out !

Computer simulations indicate that the high density observations obtained by OCO will provide much improved understanding of the uptake of atmospheric CO2 by the world's oceans and biosphere (i.e., trees!), as shown in this image recently published by the OCO Science Team:

It is well established that roughly half of the carbon emitted by human activities remains in the atmosphere, and about half is removed by the world's oceans and biosphere.  There have been many scientific studies focused on defining uptake of carbon by the oceans and trees, yet lots of uncertainty (scientific debate) persists, as illustrated by the various estimates for carbon uptake given below:


Establishing the fate of industrial carbon is important on scientific grounds. If CO2 is being taken up by the worlds oceans, they serve as a long lived reservoir that will likely isolate this carbon from the atmosphere and biosphere for the next several centuries.  However, aquatic uptake will lead to an increase in oceanic acidity that poses a threat to the future marine food chain, as illustrated below in an image that appeared in a March 2006 Scientific American article by Scott Doney entitled "The Dangers of Ocean Acidification":

If, on the other hand, the majority of industrial CO2 is being taken up by more vigorous growth of the world's trees, the sequestered carbon is being sent to a short lived reservoir that has the potential to return carbon to the atmosphere within the next several decades.  Indeed, a model simulation that allows for feedback between the global carbon cycle and climate change suggests return to the atmosphere of carbon taken up by today's trees during the next several decades, due mainly to future drought:

Establishing the fate of industrial carbon is also important for management of the global carbon cycle.  The language of the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty in effect to regulate emission of CO2, contains language that recognizes the net emission of carbon within a county's borders due to land use changes:

It is clear that human emission of CO2 must be reduced considerably to avert major changes to Earth's climate.  However, it is important to recognize that the atmosphere responds to net emissions: i.e., carbon flux: the quantity determined using OCO measurements.  Therefore, it is possible that measurements from OCO, and the complementary GOSAT instrument recently launched by the Japanese space agency, will play a role in future "management" of the global carbon cycle by policy makers.

The global carbon cycle science community eagerly awaits measurements from OCO and GOSAT.  If these instruments work as planned, the observations will pinpoint the location and magnitude of carbon uptake by oceans and trees, revolutionizing our understanding of the global carbon cycle.  In the meantime, the OCO science team, many of whom have worked on this mission with great passion, creativity, and dedication for the better part of the last decade, understands that our "real work" begins soon after launch.

Bonus for those who have read this far.  Click here to see a cool photo of the OCO instrument that recently appeared on the cover of Aviation Week.

For those whose curiosity has still not been piqued: click here to download a lecture on the Global Carbon Cycle recently given to an Atmospheric Chemistry class at the University of Maryland.

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A few noteworthy related links

Jim Hansen's homepage and a link to download a talk he gave at the Dec 2008 AGU meeting

Chris Barnet's overview of climate change and the global carbon cycle

Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at UMd

Chemistry and Biochemistry at UMd

Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at UMd

Sponsors of Ross Salawitch and Ben Johnson, the webpage authors:


Website last updated on Sunday, 01 March 2009