A new satellite to track the chief culprit in global warming crashed into the ocean near Antarctica after launch Tuesday, dealing a major setback to NASA's already weak network for monitoring Earth and its environment from above.
The $280 million mission was designed to answer one of the biggest question marks of global warming: What happens to the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide spewed by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas? How much of it is sucked up and stored by plants, soil and oceans and how much is left to trap heat on Earth to worsen global warming?
"It's definitely a setback. We were already well behind," said Neal Lane, science adviser during former President Bill Clinton's administration. "The program was weak, and now it's really weak."
For about a decade, scientists have complained of a decline in the study of Earth from space. NASA spent more money looking at other planets than it did at Earth in 2007. That same year, the National Academy of Sciences warned that NASA's study of Earth "is at great risk" with fewer missions than before and aging satellites.
"We have a very weakened Earth-observing system just at a time where we need every bit of data that we could possibly get," said Elisabeth Holland, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
She said NASA has fallen behind Europe in environmental satellites. Japan successfully launched a carbon dioxide tracking satellite just last month.
The NASA satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, was meant to explain Earth's capture of carbon dioxide, which now appears to be slowing and could accelerate global warming, said Holland, who helped write the 2006 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
Minutes after launch Tuesday in California, the satellite fell back to Earth near Antarctica not far from where environment ministers and scientists met Monday to talk about climate change. NASA officials said a protective cover on the satellite did not release and fall away, and the extra weight meant the satellite could not reach orbit.
"This was going to be one of the few bright spots in the Earth-observing system for the last five years," Holland said.
The future was starting to look better for the scientists, who had felt ignored. Last year, NASA talked about being "greener" and gave initial approval to six new Earth-observing missions. This month, the Obama administration put $400 million in the stimulus program for NASA science, and NASA's science chief Ed Weiler said "it was all going to Earth sciences."
"It's very unfortunate that it happened just at this time when we trying to get Earth observations back on track," said Ruth DeFries, a Columbia University professor who was part of the National Academy study team.
Until Japan's launch, scientists have depended on land-based stations to monitor carbon dioxide at low altitudes. The Japanese probe uses a different technique to measure carbon dioxide and does so from a different orbit compared to NASA's satellite.
Tuesday's failure put on hold the launch of another NASA satellite, Glory, which will look at solar radiation and airborne particles that reflect and trap sunlight. That satellite will launch on the same kind of rocket, the Taurus XL.
NASA needs to figure out what went wrong before Glory is launched, Weiler said.
It was the first major NASA mission launch failure since September 2001. An earlier version of the Taurus rocket, made by Orbital Sciences near Washington, failed, and an environmental satellite was lost. But the Taurus rocket has a long history of success and has never had this type of cover problem before, said John Brunschwyler, project manager for Orbital Sciences.
But now NASA is facing a big question: Should it build a duplicate of the dead satellite?
Researchers on the satellite team are pushing NASA to do that, said Graeme Stephens, a Colorado State University professor who worked on the project. The project was nine years in the making, and the mission was supposed to last two years.
A duplicate would be significantly cheaper than $280 million to build and launch because much early work does not have to be repeated, Weiler said. It could be built relatively quickly.
But one of the missions that NASA was considering speeding up with the new stimulus money was a more sophisticated and costly follow-up to the failed satellite. It makes more sense to go ahead with that project, said Berrien Moore III, who headed the National Academy study and is executive director of Climate Central, a Princeton, New Jersey, climate change think-tank.
Weiler said a decision will be made during the next several weeks.
"Our commitment to Earth sciences is clearly unwavered by this," Weiler said.