​A Behind The Scenes Look At NASA's New Carbon-Tracking Satellite

You may have caught the launch of NASA's new Orbital Carbon Observatory earlier this week. But what went in to getting it ready? Mika McKinnon has some of the behind-the-scenes facts about the process of getting that satellite to launch (including pictures of its kale-and-pineapple-based edible model)!

35 Awesome Facts About NASA's New Carbon-Tracking Satellite

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory successfully launched early on July 2nd after a cliffhanger-scrub the night before. Here’s 35 snippets of behind-the-scenes details about the newest Earth-observing satellite tasked with monitoring our home.

1. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) carries a pricetag of less than $280 million dollars. Distributed amongst a population of over 310 million people, that means this project cost Americans less than 80 cents apiece. Thank you, taxpayers; that is an astonishingly economical investment to get the first-ever data on global carbon dioxide spacial and temporal variation. Correction: The original observatory, OCO, carried the $280 million pricetag. Due to inflation and increasing launch costs, this spacecraft carried a pricetag closer to $470 million or $1.47 sprad over 4.5 years.

2. Two seems to be the Orbiting Carbon Observatory’s lucky number. It took the second launch attempt of the second satellite to get the instruments into orbit.


3. On the topic of 2s, the OCO-2 mission is current funded for two years, but the satellite carries enough fuel for regular orbital corrections for a full twelve years, and still have enough left over to nudge it out of Low Earth Orbit once it’s obsolete. The satellite is small, so instead of getting bumped up into the graveyard orbit, it’ll be bumped low enough that its orbit degrades and it comes roaring into the atmosphere. It will burn up completely on re-entry with no pesky space-junk to come crashing back to Earth, avoiding a fuel-intensive controlled re-entry to ensure leftover scrap didn’t smack into a town.

4. This year, NASA will be launching five Earth-observing satellites. Collectively grouped as “Earth Right Now” (or #EarthRightNow), the five satellites are: Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory, Soil Moisture Active Passive, Orbital Carbon Observatory 2, ISS-RapidScat, and Cloud-Aerosol Transport System.


5. Laura Faye Tenenbaum created anedible tribute to the satellite.

6. Multiple members of the OCO-2 mission team have been working together since the start of the original OCO mission over 14 years ago.

7. One of the hardware changes between OCO and OCO-2 is that the original mission used the same reaction wheels that crippled theKepler Space Telescope, and the replacement doesn’t. While Kepler has managed a fancy bit of trickery to keep working, OCO-2 avoids relying on the troublesome part to maintain its orientation.

8. Karen Yuen, the Science Data Applications and Communications Manager for OCO-2, was one of the first to notice the failure of the fairing system to release during the original OCO launch. She was the voice behind the OCO-2 Twitter feed during the launch, producing a jubilant celebration when the payload successfully separated:

9. In order to avoid endangering the public, space launches need to pose no greater risk to the population than normal commercial flights. This means that launches need fly over open water. To place satellites into equatorial orbits, launches need to climb to the east or west. That’s why Cape Canaveral is such a popular launch location despite the threat of thunderstorms requiring engineers to swaddle their structures in lightning rods. To place satellites in polar orbits, launches need to climb to the north or south. The funny little bump on the coast of California houses Vandenberg Airforce Base along a rare stretch of the coast where the ocean is to the south, not west.

10. In a bit of orbital dynamics induced irony, spacecraft tend to be launched in the middle of the night, while national security and spy satellites usually launch mid-morning.

11. The Delta II rocket carrying OCO-2 reached hypersonic speeds, over Mach 10, at an altitude of just over 35 nautical miles.

12. The NASA Launch Services Program launch team was split between Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral. The NASA Launch Manager and OCO-2 Mission Manager were both in Vandenberg.

13. The Launch Director is responsible for actually pushing the button triggering ignition, and yes, it is literally a button! (And in response to a question during the NASA Social press briefing, no, we can’t push it. Meanies!)

14. The launch was dedicated in memory of Laurie Walls, a Thermal Engineer with NASA’s Launch Services Program. Walls passed away on June 4th, and a memorial plaque dedicated to her was affixed to the umbilical tower on Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Thefollowing dedication was read out during the OCO-2 countdown commentary:

The OCO-2 mission has special meaning to NASA’s Launch Services Program as we have dedicated it to one of our LSP Teammates, Laurie Walls. Laurie began her career over 30 years ago as a thermal engineer for McDonnell Douglas in Huntsville, Alabama, supporting NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. She moved to Florida in 1985. Shortly after coming to Florida, Laurie became a civil servant working on the Shuttle program return to flight effort post-Challenger. In 1998, Laurie joined the newly formed Launch Services Program as one of the founding members of the flight analysis group. She served in LSP as the thermal discipline expert until her untimely death earlier this month. Laurie worked thermal issues for numerous NASA Delta II and Atlas V missions. Additionally, she provided key thermal support for both Delta II Heavy development and Atlas V Certification. Laurie was an integral member of LSP’s family and she was truly dedicated to NASA and the LSP team. She will be greatly missed. We honor Laurie with a special memorial placed on the SLC-2 umbilical tower, and we thank ULA for helping to make this happen.

15. The spacecraft is deliberately aimed to catch sunlight on the still-folded solar arrays during the coast leading up to the final second stage burn. This allows some recharging of the battery prior to final separation. At the end of the burn the spacecraft is in its final orbit, reoriented to point directly into the sun, and jettisons the last stage of the Delta II rocket. By pointing into the sun prior to separation, not only do we get an artistically backlit view of separation, but it means that after minimal adjusting to dampen out any separation-induced tumbling, the craft is oriented to begin recharging in earnest just as soon as the solar array unfolds.

16. TheHartebeesthoek antenna in South Africa collected the video during separation.

17. Although everyone I asked cited unfolding the solar panels to start charging the battery as the key point when they’d start relaxing and truly believe the launch was a success, it will take about 3 or 4 days until the entire system comes online.

18. The solar arrays used on OCO-2 are the lightweight but fragile and expensive manufacturing option to power the satellite. But, since every bit of weight matters by increasing fuel requirements, it’s the economical option when the launch and orbital costs are factored in.

19. This mission marked the 42nd ULA launch and 117th NASA launch out of Vandenberg. It’s also the 51st NASA mission to use a Delta II, earning the rocket the nickname of “industry work horse.”

20. It used to be that satellites could get directly launched into the A-train constellation, but now with five satellites in relatively close proximity, it’s too risky. Instead, new satellites start out in a synchronous but lower orbit (15 kilometers lower for OCO-2) and undergo a testing process where they demonstrate that they are nimble and obedient before they’re permitted to merge into the train.

21. Once the satellite is fully operation, slotted into position, and finished with the verification and calibration stage, all the data will be hosted online in the Hierarchical Data Format (HDF5). The data’s meta-information is directly embedded in the data to increase its accessibility to researchers.

22. The mission scientists and engineers openly acknowledge that this satellite won’t provide any data that will convince climate-change deniers to suddenly listen to scientific consensus. Instead, it will track emissions to help scientists learn the details of what’s going on, helping target the research topics of future graduate students to important carbon sequestration processes that we know little about.

23. Space Launch Complex is commonly abbreviated to SLC. This is pronounced “Slick.” OCO-2 launched off of SLC 2, the launch pad leased by United Launch Alliance (ULA).

24. A NASA Social was hosted in conjunction with the launch.After an open application, approximately fifty people were selected to attend the event. The attendees included a PhD candidate in rhetoric and internet studies, a pair of science teachers and a university professor, an MTV reality game show contestant, part of a team competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE, several voices behind corporate social media accounts (including Nintendo and WestJet), photographers, a designer of radar jammers, a USGS volcanologist, an ethnographic filmmaker, a yoga instructor, science fiction and children’s book authors, and many others. Alas, the professional skateboarder was plagued by car-troubles and didn’t make it to the launch.

25. As your devoted io9 representative, between tours, the launch window, filing launch reports, and sheer giddy excitement, I caught 7 hours of sleep between 6 am on June 30th and 6:09 am on July 2nd. Any appearance of coherence in the launch reports is purely coincidental, a random fluke produced by sleep-deprived keyboard mashing.

26. During the NASA Social pre-launch tour of Vandenberg, Dr. Kayla Iacovino coaxed NASA Administrator Charles Bolden into declaring his love forStar Trek.

27. One outstanding question is if this satellite will be sensitive enough to pick up the carbon output of an erupting volcano. The high-resolution spectrometers are sensitive to changes of a single part per million in 400 parts per million (0.3%), but volcanoes spew out ash and water vapour along with carbon dioxide. This noise may mask the signal of all but the largest eruptions. Any detection of eruptions will be opportunistic, the chance alignment of just the right style of eruption at just the right location at just the right time.

28.Solar-induced fluorescence is a waste product of photosynthesis and used as a proxy to remotely detect photosynthesis efficiency. This glow will be detected by OCO-2 instruments.

29. Jet Propulsion Laboratories has a tradition of munching peanuts during launch dating back to their introduction after a series of doomed Ranger missions. The tradition is alive and well at NASA Social events, with two jars of peanuts getting passed around during the initial launch attempt, increasing to four jars on the second attempt. “More peanuts!” became the universal solution to any problem encountered at the viewing site.

30. In an effort to boost the peanut-power, on the second launch attempt, NASA Social participant Holly Hamann brought a variety of thematically-appropriate candies. For a bit of added extra luck, a barrista at Lompoc’s South Side Coffee Company donated two packs of chocolate covered espresso beans to keep everyone alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic.

31. The satellite is in a sun-synchronous orbit, which means that one side of the satellite will be in perpetual darkness. The anti-sun side is at the base of one of the solar panels.

32. The optics are passively cooled. Passive cooling functions by connecting radiators to a variable conductance heat pipe. The temperature differential is actually enough to drop the temperature to -20°C, so to avoid over-chilling the optics, the heat pipe automatically opens and closes to keep the temperature hovering around -5°C. The switching happens on the order of every ten to fifteen minutes.

33. While the optics are at a relatively warm -5°C, the detectors will be mechanically cooled with a cryogenic system to an astonishing -150°C. One tiny cable experiences a dramatic temperature gradient from one end to the other to preserve the data.

34. The star-finding telescope used to orient and aim the satellite is also a water trap. Any moisture captured within the satellite will drain out of the telescope, avoiding a build-up of internal frost.

35. While arriving at the public viewing area involves walking into the light like ill-fated characters in a movie script, the entire area is plunged into darkness when the lights are cut as soon as the final built-in hold expires at T-4 minutes and the final launch readiness checklists begin.

Image credits: Bottom foggy-photo by Scott Butner. Candy photo by Holly Hamann. Star Trek selfie by Dr. Kayla Iacovino. All other photographs credit NASA

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