Author: Len Ly

Asteroid Expert Richard Binzel: ARM is "Emperor With No Clothes"

Asteroid Expert Richard Binzel: ARM is "Emperor With No Clothes"

NASA’s plan to send humans to retrieve asteroid samples in the next decade is not driven by science, acknowledged many participants at NASA’s 11th Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meeting this week in Washington.  There was no consensus, however, about the mission’s utility toward sustainable human exploration of space.

Richard Binzel, asteroid expert and planetary science professor at MIT, made the controversy the focus of his presentation, telling the gathering that NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is “the emperor with no clothes, or at best with very thin cloth” as to how it applies to a pathway to sending humans to Mars.

Unlike the Apollo lunar missions that brought back the first lunar rock samples, which were “transformative science,” it is “irrational” to risk human lives to grab an asteroid sample, Binzel said.

NASA is using ARM to test technical capabilities required for human exploration of Mars in the mid-2030s, though the agency’s fact sheet on ARM also states the mission would allow “important scientific investigations and develop capabilities for deep space exploration and potentially for planetary defense.”

ARM is divided into three mission phases: select an asteroid; robotically capture and redirect it (the entire asteroid or just one of its boulders, each 10 meters or less in diameter) to stable lunar orbit using advanced solar electric propulsion; then use the future Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion capsule to transport astronauts to collect samples by 2025.

Binzel criticized the retrieval part of the mission in particular and cited the abundant population of “accessible” asteroids in their native orbits.  He asserted that a 10-meter object traverses cis-lunar space (between Earth and the Moon) weekly. “We don’t have to go to them, they’re coming to us.”

“The asteroid becomes exciting and interesting only because it’s a stunt,” Binzel said, a “one-and-done stunt that will irreparably damage small body exploration.”  Planetary scientists use the term “small bodies” to refer to asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, small satellites, and Trans-Neptunian Objects.

He advocated that “thorough surveys” of accessible asteroids be conducted first while an “extended human capability” is being developed in order to achieve a sustainable path of small body and Mars exploration.    According to one of his slides (which are posted on the SBAG website), “99.9 % of accessible 10 meter asteroids remain undiscovered.”

Representatives from various NASA centers and others in the audience agreed on the need for a thorough survey to look for asteroids.  They did not agree with everything Binzel said, however.  One objection was Binzel’s mixing of  “two different things such as” Apollo and ARM. Another participant expressed skepticism about finding enough asteroid targets that would be accessible.

“Fundamentally we don’t have enough money available to do the things we need…So we have something like ARM,” one attendee responded to Binzel.  “You’re absolutely right, [ARM] would not be something a scientist would design,” but “science needs to be involved simply to make it safer and to make it better.”

Binzel noted the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) recent “Pathways to Exploration” report was critical of ARM.  An audience member pointed out that while that was true, the NRC did not recommend any specific pathway to Mars.

The House-passed 2014 NASA Authorization Act, which has yet to pass the Senate, would require SBAG, along with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), to assess “how the proposed mission is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.”  SBAG reports to NAC’s Planetary Science Subcommittee (PSS), which in turn reports to NAC’s Science Committee.  SBAG cannot formally give advice to NASA, but it informs PSS and the Science Committee, which do give advice.

“Our credibility is at stake,” Binzel told the SBAG audience. “Either say you love it or you hate it, but don’t be neutral.”

Binzel’s presentation was on Wednesday (July 30).  The ARM debate continued Thursday, the last day of the 3-day forum, though to a lesser degree.

SBAG received briefings from a number of NASA officials on the agency’s overall human space exploration plan, the “Evolvable Mars Campaign.”  ARM is one of several steps in that campaign that eventually leads to humans landing on Mars.   On Thursday, NASA’s Patrick Troutman presented the role that the moons of Mars — Phobos and Deimos — could play as possible destinations.  An audience member asked Troutman why not have a trip to one of those moons as a precursor to landing on Mars instead of ARM?

“There are things pulling against that with respect to near-term activities and there’s also a feeling that maybe the next president comes in and perhaps Mars is not the target,” said Troutman, a member of NASA’s Human Spaceflight Architecture Team at Langley Research Center.

Phobos and Deimos are worth exploring because they are close enough to Mars to provide access to the planet’s surface, are rich in science, and would utilize the same crew transportation systems that would be needed for a Mars landing mission, yet require less investment in surface assets, Troutman said.

“I got the impression that there was not necessarily a consensus view,” said SBAG chair Nancy Chabot, in her closing remarks.  Chabot is a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab.

Hartman: U.S. and Russian Crews to Fly Both Soyuz and U.S. Commercial Vehicles

Hartman: U.S. and Russian Crews to Fly Both Soyuz and U.S. Commercial Vehicles

NASA intends to use future U.S. commercial crew vehicles to carry not only its astronauts, but also those of its Russian partner, to the International Space Station (ISS), said Dan Hartman, deputy space station program manager, at a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting on Monday (July 28).

Different international vehicles routinely transport crew and cargo to and from the ISS, a laboratory circling some 250 miles above Earth. Currently, the U.S. commercially provided Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon, Russia’s Progress, Japan’s H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) provide cargo resupply to the space station.  ATV-5, scheduled to lift off today from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, is the last of its kind.

Russia’s Soyuz, however, remains the world’s sole operational crew vehicle, on which NASA must continue to rely until U.S. commercial alternatives are ready.

“We’re going to stay mixed” though, Hartman said at a meeting of NAC’s Committee on Human Exploration and Operations at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.  NASA’s plan is for some NASA astronauts to continue launching on the Soyuz from Kazakhstan and some Russian cosmonauts to be launched from the United States by private companies, he explained. The idea is to barter: “It would be just a seat for a seat.”

Soyuz spacecraft not only transport crews to and from ISS, but serve as “lifeboats,” always docked to the ISS as an emergency evacuation route if needed.  The number of crew aboard the ISS is, in part, limited by how many Soyuz seats are available for evacuation.  Each Soyuz can accommodate a three-person crew.  If two Soyuz are attached, six people can be in residence.  Soyuz spacecraft can remain attached to the ISS for as long as six months, setting up what is now the routine 4-6 month crew rotation schedule. SpaceX, at least, is designing its Dragon V2 so that it could serve as a lifeboat as well. Other commercial crew competitors may have similar plans.

Hartman’s point was that in an emergency, it might not make sense to have all the Russians leave on one spacecraft and the Americans and others on a separate spacecraft because a mixture of experience may be needed to conduct operations.  “When you have these rescue vehicles on orbit and you have to leave the station…it doesn’t make much sense for three Russians to leave and expect the four Americans onboard to operate the Russian segment [of the ISS] and vice versa, right?” Hartman said.

NASA plans to award at least one contract under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the commercial crew program in August or September 2014.  NASA officials are prohibited from providing any details of the bids that have been submitted, including which companies made the bids.   NASA is funding three companies in the current phase of the program, CCiCap (Commercial Crew Integrated Capability) – Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX.   Under CCtCap, at least one crewed flight test to the space station is required before certification is granted.  NASA hopes that at least one U.S. commercial crew vehicle will be ready to transport astronauts to the ISS by late 2017.

President Obama has proposed extending ISS operations until at least 2024.  The governments of NASA’s space station partners—Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan—have not formally accepted yet.

“I don’t think we need that answer from them for another year or so,” Hartman said. Other NASA officials have said they do not expect answers from the partners for several years and today’s strained U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship complicates future planning on many fronts.

Presently, three Russians, one European and two Americans are living and working aboard the space station.

House Committee Members and ISS Astronauts Reflect on Apollo 11, Look to Future

House Committee Members and ISS Astronauts Reflect on Apollo 11, Look to Future

Members of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) via live downlink with the committee today (July 24) reflected on this week’s 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 human moon landing and the importance of continuing the nation’s leadership in space.

Committee members asked NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman about, among other topics, the challenges of space debris, the space station’s contributions to society, and the possibility of encountering life on other planets one day (to which Swanson answered “it will happen”).

The ISS is routinely occupied by a six-person crew and is a testbed for future human deep space missions, such as to Mars.  Three Russians and one European currently live and work with Swanson and Wiseman on the laboratory flying 250 miles or so above Earth.

“Space inspires future generations to dream big and work hard,” committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said.  Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) added that she welcomed President Obama’s proposal to extend ISS to at least 2024 and hopes there will be a committee hearing to comprehensively examine the space station’s contributions to human space exploration and basic and applied research.

Following the roughly 20-minute call with the ISS astronauts, the committee offered a showcase of hardware and technologies being tested on the ISS, as well as a panel discussion explaining the ISS research from representatives of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) and NASA.

A webcast of the discussion with the ISS astronauts, including opening statements by Smith and Johnson, is on the committee’s website.

Orbital's Antares Sends Orb-2 Cargo Mission to ISS

Orbital's Antares Sends Orb-2 Cargo Mission to ISS

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va.—Like a giant flame against a mostly clear sky, an Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket carrying the company’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft blasted off today (July 13) en route to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cygnus is in orbit and all systems are operating nominally, said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president, at a post-launch press conference at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility shortly after the launch.  The cargo resupply mission, dubbed “Orb-2,” is the second of eight that Orbital has planned through 2016 under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA worth $1.9 billion.  NASA’s other commercial cargo resupply provider is SpaceX.

Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at ISS on Wednesday (July 16) where it will be grappled by astronauts using the Canadarm2 robotic arm at approximately 6:39 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT). The capsule will deliver approximately 3,300 pounds of cargo, of which about half is food and the remainder includes hardware, experiments, other supplies and more than 30 cubesats.

NASA was happy the launch finally took place because things were “getting to be where it was a little tense” with supplies aboard the ISS said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, at the post-launch briefing.  He stressed that establishing a regular cadence of resupply flights is very important.  But “things went really smooth” today he said of the on-time 12:52 p.m. EDT liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops.

 “An enhanced version of Cygnus will begin flying next year,” Culbertson added, and eventually Cygnus will be able carry 700 kilograms more than the current version.  Europe’s last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) is being readied for launch.  In future years, other cargo systems, such as Cygnus, will have to compensate for the absence of the ATV.   Japan’s HTV also delivers cargo to the ISS.  Gerstenmaier said four more are planned and NASA is in talks with Japan about whether there will be more after that.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made an unannounced appearance at the Wallops Visitor Center prior to the launch to talk with students and other visitors about the agency’s ongoing efforts to engage with the public and encourage kids to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Orb-1 was launched in January 2014.  Orb-2 was originally scheduled for May, but slipped several times.  An initial postponement was due to a delay in the launch of SpaceX’s third cargo resupply mission to the ISS. A fire during a test of an Antares AJ-26 rocket engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in May caused Orb-2’s launch date to slip several more times to July. Then weather issues delayed the launch from July 11 until today.  

This Cygnus will remain attached to the ISS until August 15.  The next in the series, Orb-3, is tentatively scheduled for launch in October 2014.

NASA IG: Scientists Like SOFIA, But Changes Needed to Keep it That Way

NASA IG: Scientists Like SOFIA, But Changes Needed to Keep it That Way

Despite its problematic development history, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) remains capable of contributing to—and is regarded favorably in large part by—the science community, according to a report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released Wednesday (July 9).

“However, we understand that the SOFIA Program is competing for limited resources and policymakers will have to decide whether other NASA projects are a higher scientific and budgetary priority,” the 48-page report said.

The airborne observatory—a modified Boeing 747SP plane equipped with an approximately 9-foot diameter telescope—studies the universe in infrared wavelengths. That region of the electromagnetic spectrum is emitted by stars and planets and its trail, though invisible to human eyes, can be analyzed to help scientists better understand how the celestial bodies formed, the chemistry of interstellar material, and the environments around supermassive black holes.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC, formerly Dryden) and Ames Research Center in California manage SOFIA. The observatory, based at AFRC, can be flown to almost anywhere in the world, exceed a 40,000-foot altitude and return immediately.  The capabilities complement ground- and space-based telescopes by allowing SOFIA to avoid water vapor in the lower atmosphere that can interfere with infrared observations and enable researchers to continuously test new instruments.

NASA began formulating plans for SOFIA in 1991 in partnership with its German counterpart, DLR.  In February of this year, the observatory became fully operational after more than 17 years in development—13 years longer than originally planned, with a development cost of $1.1 billion—more than 300 percent over the original estimate, the OIG report highlighted.  That figure does not include annual operating costs.

SOFIA’s “$3 billion life-cycle cost estimate, which includes a planned 20-year operational life and annual operating costs of approximately $80 million” makes it “the second most expensive operating mission for NASA’s Astrophysics Division after the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The program’s future is currently being debated between Congress and the Obama Administration.

For FY2015, President Obama is asking Congress for $12.3 million for the program.  The program typically is funded at about $80 million per year to cover NASA’s 80 percent share of the operating costs; DLR pays the other 20 percent.

The Obama Administration’s proposal is to mothball SOFIA because of its high operating costs and, in its opinion, lower priority than other NASA astrophysics programs.  The requested funding is to terminate the program in a manner that would allow the observatory to be reactivated in the future if more money is available. NASA has permission to seek other partners to defray some of the operating costs.  NASA, however, has not identified additional partners and DLR has declined to increase its commitment, the OIG report said.  It also found that NASA program officials viewed the proposed $12.3 million as “insufficient even to shut down the program.”

Congress, conversely, is pushing to keep the program alive.

A new NASA authorization bill —which provides policy guidelines and funding recommendations—has yet to pass both chambers. The version passed by the House last month (H.R. 4412) contains language forbidding the agency from using any funds in the current FY2014 to shut down SOFIA. The Senate is working on its version of the bill.

Congress is also working on the FY2015 appropriations bill for NASA, which is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill.  The House version, H.R. 4660, passed in May.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported its version (S. 2437), which is awaiting floor action.  The House version allocates $70 million for SOFIA, compared to its FY2014 appropriated level of $86.4 million.  The Senate bill includes $87 million.  Both specifically reject the Administration’s proposal to mothball SOFIA.

The OIG investigation noted the uncertainty about the program’s future and potential ramifications, including “possible reactivation, how to retain key staff, and whether to move forward with planned research and maintenance activities.”

The report identified seven issues for NASA to consider that could affect scientific demand for SOFIA and the observatory’s long-term performance:

  • More Frequent Infusion of New Technology
  • Lack of a Formal Outreach Plan to Engage Science Community
  • Insufficient Funding to Complete Research Projects
  • Lack of Timely Data
  • No Formal Rescheduling Process for Cancelled Observations
  • Research Flight Hour Requirement May Not Provide Most Efficient Use of the Observatory
  • Periodic Assessments Needed to Assess Cost Efficiency of SOFIA’s Science

NASA should also consider alternatives to the cost-plus-fixed-fee contract with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Maryland when it expires in 2016, the OIG said: “Proceeding into the operational phase with an organizational structure and contract type that does not provide management with the proper tools … may not be the most effective and cost efficient option.”

The agency has concurred with the recommendations and proposed corrective actions, the report said.

NASA's OCO-2 Reaches Orbit Successfully on Second Try

NASA's OCO-2 Reaches Orbit Successfully on Second Try

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), a mission filled with many second chances, finally moved forward and upward in what officials called a perfect launch this morning (July 2) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

An initial launch attempt for OCO-2 was scrubbed yesterday during the final minute into the countdown that officials hours later attributed to a faulty valve in the launch pad water system that has since been replaced.

“Something we thought as simple as the water turning on turned out not to be simple,” said Geoff Yoder, deputy associate administrator for programs, Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, at a post-launch news conference shortly after the launch.  “So today when it went through, we applauded,” he said with relief and laughter.

OCO-2 is the agency’s first mission dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading human-produced greenhouse gas affecting climate change. The observatory replaces the original OCO that was lost in a launch failure in 2009.

Initial checkouts show “the spacecraft is healthy” and will start producing science data early next year, said Ralph Basilio, OCO-2 project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), at the press conference.  Basilio was one of the original OCO team members.  He and the other panelists congratulated one another and conveyed their excitement to “complete unfinished business.”

OCO-2 lifted off on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket under a foggy sky at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT, 5:56 a.m. EDT), as scheduled.

Roughly 56 minutes into the flight, an onboard camera confirmed the successful separation of the spacecraft and rocket.

The mission is expected to last at least two years, officials said.

NASA to Try Again for OCO-2 Launch on Wednesday

NASA to Try Again for OCO-2 Launch on Wednesday

NASA confirmed it will attempt to launch the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) again tomorrow (July 2) at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (PDT, 5:56 a.m. EDT).

Launch today was scrubbed at T-46 seconds because of a failed valve that was part of the launch pad water system that protects the pad itself and suppresses sound at the time of liftoff.  The valve has been replaced with a spare, the agency said.

As with the first launch attempt, there will be a 30-second launch window.  Weather conditions remain 100 percent favorable.

NASA Announces ARM Candidate Asteroids, Study Contracts

NASA Announces ARM Candidate Asteroids, Study Contracts

NASA has found six valid candidates so far in its ongoing hunt to find an asteroid to use for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) agency officials announced on Thursday.  They also announced the award of 18 system concept study contracts valued at a total of $4.9 million.

The progress update comes roughly one year after the Obama Administration announced plans for ARM, a modification of President Obama’s 2010 directive to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 as the next step in human space exploration.  Instead of sending astronauts to an asteroid, the ARM concept would bring the asteroid to the astronauts.

NASA divides ARM into three phases:  identifying an appropriate asteroid; using a robotic spacecraft to capture the asteroid and nudge it into orbit around the Moon; and sending astronauts aboard an Orion spacecraft to collect and bring back samples of the asteroid.

“We don’t plan to, nor do we want to, stop looking for targets,” said Michele Gates, ARM program director, at Thursday’s press conference that featured panelists in Washington and others from around the globe joining in virtually.  “We actually wouldn’t need to make a final selection of a target until one year before launch.”

Under current plans, the ARM robotic spacecraft is scheduled for launch in 2019. Two mission concepts are being considered.  “Option A” would capture an entire asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in diameter whereas “Option B” would collect a boulder less than 32 feet in diameter off of a large asteroid.  The agency will choose which option to move forward with likely in mid-December, Gates said.

More than 11,000 near-Earth objects have been discovered and approximately 100 are being found monthly, said Paul Chodas, program scientist at NASA’s Near Earth Object Program. “Discovery is not enough,” he added. “We also have to consider characterization—that is learning about the physical properties of the asteroids.”

The asteroid candidates are being categorized as “potential” or “valid”.  Potentials are “the ones that look good roughly and have roughly the right size,” Chodas said, whereas valids are those for which detailed information such as mass and boulders on the surface already have been derived and are “within the capability of the asteroid retrieval vehicle to bring back.”

The list so far is nine potentials for Option A, three of which are valids; and thousands of potentials, but only three valids, for Option B, Chodas said.

The panelists focused on asteroid 2011 MD, a valid candidate for Option A.  “What you need to have is the kind of asteroid orbit that is very similar to Earth’s orbit and 2011 MD is one of those type of asteroids,” said David Tholen, astronomer at the University of Hawaii.

Infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope reveal it is approximately 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter “perhaps resembling … a rubble pile” with a “remarkably low density” according to a NASA press release.  

The asteroid could fit in a home garage or might actually float in a swimming pool, Michael Mommert, a post-doctoral researcher at Northern Arizona University, said at the press conference.

“This is pretty unexpected because traditionally people thought that small asteroids like 2011 MD are just single pieces of rock or single boulders floating in space,” Mommert continued.  The findings from Spitzer were published Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The opportunity to capture 2011 MD would be in 2024, but more observations are needed to find out what the asteroid really looks like. Other candidates include asteroid 2008 HU4, which will pass close enough to Earth in 2016 for better observations of its size, shape and rotation rate, and Bennu, which will get close up shots by NASA’s Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission in 2018. OSIRIS-REx is a robotic asteroid sample return mission.

At Thursday’s press conference the agency also announced 18 winners of contracts for system concept studies to further refine ARM. Approximately $4.9 million total will be awarded to fund the six-month studies, which will begin in July.  The awards are in five areas:  asteroid capture system, rendezvous sensors, adapting commercial spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, partnerships for secondary payloads, and potential partnerships to enhance U.S. exploration activities in cis-lunar space in conjunction with the crewed mission.

NASA describes ARM as part of a pathway toward attaining the goal of eventually sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.   The mission is very controversial and has won little support outside of the Obama Administration.  The recently released National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration was the latest to cast doubt on its utility as a step toward human exploration of Mars.  The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on the NRC study on Wednesday (June 25).

Thursday’s press conference kicked off a two-day public virtual workshop series that celebrated the one-year anniversary of the White House’s Asteroid Grand Challenge to engage the public in the ARM effort.

NASA Ready to Launch Replacement OCO Satellite for Measuring Atmospheric CO2

NASA Ready to Launch Replacement OCO Satellite for Measuring Atmospheric CO2

NASA plans to launch next month its first spacecraft dedicated to measuring Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving climate change, the agency announced on Thursday.

Called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), it replaces the nearly identical OCO, which was lost during a rocket launch failure in 2009.

OCO-2 will carry one instrument with three high-resolution spectrometers that will allow scientists to use light-analyzing processes to estimate concentrations of CO2 and oxygen. The satellite will take measurements over Earth’s sunlit hemisphere, capturing hundreds of thousands of measurements daily from the ground directly below, over oceans, and targeted sites as it passes overhead.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation,” said Betsy Edwards, OCO-2 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, one of the panelists at the press conference. “OCO-2 will provide new insight into where and how CO2 is moving in and out of the atmosphere…and it’s going to be an unprecedented level of coverage and resolution.”

The carbon cycle — how the planet breathes — remains largely a mystery.  Much of what is known about the role of CO2 comes from ground-based observations at Mauna Loa in Hawaii dating back to 1956, said Mike Gunson, OCO-2 project scientist at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which manages the mission.   Satellites like OCO-2 can provide a global view.

Atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in at least the past 800,000 years and nearly 40 billion tons is released annually by human activities such as fossil fuel burning according to the agency.

“Half of what we release is being absorbed by the plants or the oceans, but it is variable from year to year and understanding that variability is really crucial,” Gunson said. “CO2 is very stable and there are few loss processes, if any, once it is in the atmosphere.”

Gunson and his JPL colleagues OCO-2 project manager Ralph Basilio and OCO-2 deputy project scientist Annmarie Eldering were also members of the panel.

With the loss of the original OCO spacecraft, “we didn’t even have one problem to solve,” Basilio said as he described the heartbreak then and the excitement now to complete unfinished business.

The team will see their second chance lift off on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket on July 1 at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California if the schedule remains on track.

Edwards thanked NASA’s Japanese partners, who she said reached out and invited NASA to participate in analyzing data from their Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite (GOSAT) after the OCO mishap.

The original OCO cost roughly $275 million compared to $465 million for its replacement, Edwards said.  She cited the launch vehicle change (from a Taurus-XL to a Delta II), program delays, reengineering changes and inflation for the cost hike.

OCO-2, which has a design life of two years but sufficient fuel to last beyond that, will lead a line of five other international Earth-monitoring satellites known as the A-Train constellation. Every 16 days the spacecraft will observe the same spot on the globe to help give scientists seasonal as well as annual patterns.

NASA was planning to use OCO-2 spare parts to build OCO-3 and attach it to the International Space Station in late 2016, but budget constraints forced the agency to put that idea on hold.  “We hope to get back to OCO-3,” Edwards said, “but right now the budget doesn’t allow.”

For FY2015, NASA is seeking $21 million to operate OCO-2. The cost is part of the $4,972 million the agency is requesting for its science account, of which $1,770 million is for earth science.  The House-passed FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill would cut that amount slightly, to $1,750 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended a significant increase to $1,832 million largely because it wants to transfer two NOAA satellite programs to NASA.