With the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (or or OCO-2), NASA has taken the first step towards the kind of ‘Treknology’ we are used to seeing in our favorite fictional future. TrekMovie was at the launch as part of a NASA Social event, plus we were lucky enough to catch an inspiring speech from NASA Administrator (and possibly Trekkie?) Charlie Bolden. Details below
OCO-2 sits on the launchpad at Vandenberg Air Force Base – ready to leave the planet
Who cares about carbon?
"Mr. Sulu, run an atmospheric analysis." It’s something that doesn’t sound at all out of place in an episode of Star Trek (In fact, that’s a quote from “That Which Survives“). 23rd century technology allows for a detailed atmospheric scan at the push of a tricorder button or at the launch of a Class 3 probe. With the launch of OCO-2, NASA now has its own atmospheric carbon probe circling the Earth.
Everyone’s got their eye on carbon dioxide (CO2); the little molecule that could. It only makes up 0.04% (400 parts per million) of Earth’s atmosphere, but tiny fluctuations in the trace gas can strongly influence plant and animal life on any planet. Planetary atmospheres are complex things, especially on Earth where the all-important carbon is constantly changing forms: it moves between the air, plants, animals, oceans, and rocks. Without a measure of how much carbon hides away in each of these different reservoirs and how carbon moves from one place to another, it is difficult to understand the geological, atmospheric, and anthropogenic (that’s human-caused) processes that control the movement and storage of carbon, arguably the most important element within all known life (save the Horta).
Why the OCO-2 satellite is such a big deal for science
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, launched just two weeks ago from California, is now the first satellite to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide from orbit (read: NASA’s first atmospheric CO2 probe!). The probe, which is about the size of the TARDIS, is still undergoing tests and orbital maneuvers to work its way into an optimal orbit. The data it will collect is extremely precise; the instruments aboard have a detection limit of 1 part per million. That means it can detect one-ten-thousandth of a percent of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Can any of Starfleet’s probes do that?
High tensions on launch day
Like with all great space science there is an element of risk involved. The OCO-2 is indeed already safely in orbit around our planet, but, scientists and engineers who have spent the better part of a decade working on this project were rightfully holding their breaths on the night of the launch, perhaps more so than for other launches, given OCO’s history. Notice the number “2”? OCO-2 is not the first of it’s kind, but it is the first to make it into orbit. On February 4th, 2009, the first satellite to carry the name OCO lifted off aboard a Taurus rocket, but when the rocket’s fairings failed to separate as planned, the entire payload was unable to reach its orbit and plummeted back to Earth.
So there was quite a sense of relief after the OCO-2 spacecraft was succesfully deployed, as noted by team lead Annmarie Eldering who was live tweeting the launch…
Fairing off – whew!
— Annmarie Eldering (@Eldering_CO2) July 2, 2014
Here is a video compiled by NASA Social attendee Jeff Sullivan showing the successful launch.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden drops in for a visit — is he a Trekkie?
TrekMovie’s Kayla Iacovino and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden take a vulcan selfie.
As TrekMovie has previously reported, President Barack Obama is a bit of a Trekkie, so it is no surprise that his NASA Administrator also knows his way around a Vulcan hand salute. While he didn’t come right out and say it, the speech Mr. Bolden gave to NASA Social attendees at Vandenberg Air Force Base this month embodied many of the themes Trek fans hold most dear…
We owe it to people to continue to advance and we owe it to this nation to continue to reach way beyond where we can see right now. I use that in reference to exploring and frontiering and the like.
Mr. Bolden spoke about social media, NASA’s role in Earth Science, his experience as an astronaut, and the human race’s aspirations for Mars.
My vision, my belief is when we finally send humans to Mars in the 2030s, the first astronaut is not going to go down there and start building stuff and move in because by then, we will have started to use robotic precursors to do construction of habitats and the like. We’re smart enough to do that…
I don’t talk about exploring anymore, I talk about pioneering. Where people will go with the intent of staying. It may not be someone goes there and lives and dies there, although that may very well (happen), somebody may decide they want to do that. It means that humanity will go there, put up permanent habitats and stay there.
When asked why we should focus on colonizing Mars when we’ve done such a poor job here on Earth, Mr. Bolden had this to say:
Ahh, I think we’ve done pretty well with Earth. We didn’t do great, but it’s the best planet I know of.
You know you look around and you say yeah do we do bad stuff, are we not good stewards of Earth? In many cases yes we are. I think a large percentage of the population really works very hard to try to be good stewards of this planet. One of the reasons I think it’s important to try to get as many people as possible to see the planet from the perspective that I had (in space), when your looking back on it and you see how beautiful it is, it turns a non-believer into a believer (and) a non environmentalist into an environmentalist pretty quick.
As beautiful as the planet looks (from space) there is still no question about the damage that has been done. When you look at something like the Aral Sea or Lake Chad which is almost non-existent today, because all the water has evaporated over time, those are some things that ideally, we had something to do with and so, I think it’s important for us to go do this (pointing to OCO2 rocket). Hopefully we will be better stewards of another planet than we were here.
At some point, not in your life or my life, because we’re not going to live that long, but at some point in the future of the species, we’re not going to be able to live on this planet. In fact we’re not going to be able to live in the solar system because it will go away. Our sun is like every other star, it’s dying.
Read the entire discussion here. Huge thanks to Rodmoose for the transcript.
OCO-2: Where is she now?
Currently, OCO-2 is still going through the orbital motions to position herself into the proper orbit. Soon, OCO-2 will join five other Earth observing satellites that make up the “A-train” satellite constellation.
For now, scientists and engineers are watching OCO-2 from the Mission Operation Center at Orbital Sciences Dulles, Virginia. Once in operation it will be providing data to anyone who cares to use it. As always, the NASA research data will be freely available online. That means that very soon, thanks to OCO-2 and the other Earth observing satellites in the A-train, scientists will be calling up NASA’s modern-day Sulus and requesting those atmospheric readings on our little Class-M planet.
Mission Operation Center in Virginia, where OCO-2 telemetry is streaming in