Making a 'carbon copy' of a spacecraft
The worst of moments, and something over which you have absolutely no control.
That was how the team behind Nasa's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) were feeling on this day last year.
OCO was designed to make unprecedented global measurements of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide.
We all saw the spacecraft climb into the night sky above Vandenberg Air Force Base in California...but minutes later, it was heading back to Earth to be dumped in the ocean near Antarctica. Its rocket had malfunctioned.
The Taurus vehicle's clamshell fairing protecting the satellite in flight had failed to separate at the designated time.
The vehicle and OCO were therefore too heavy and travelling too slowly [PDF 1Mb] to make orbit.
Talking to me this week, OCO's principal investigator Dave Crisp is philosophical about the whole thing:
"Knowing that the thing you've laboured over with love is sitting on top of 100 tons of high explosive - that is a rocket - is something that if it doesn't generate a little bit of anxiety, then you're not breathing. This is one of the most dangerous things we still do in space. The launch is still a high-risk endeavour. We all know that going into it and we all look forward to getting it over with."
Dr Crisp is a lot happier today knowing that President Obama would like to re-build OCO.
In his Nasa FY2011 budget request this month, the president specifically mentioned funds for an OCO-2.
Indeed, in all the hullabaloo over the cancellation of the Ares "Moon rockets", little comment was made about the considerable increase in funding requested for Earth science at Nasa.
Mr Obama is calling for an Earth science budget [PDF 1Mb] at the US space agency in 2011 of $1.8bn, an increase of $300m.
Also, the budget is expected to rise to $2.2bn by 2015. This would implement and accelerate a suite of missions - including the follow-ons to Icesat, which has just failed, and to the "gravity twins" known as Grace which I've written so much about in recent years.
The budget papers released by the White House make the bold claim that engineering considerations, not money, will determine launch schedules.
The OCO team is meeting with Nasa management in Washington DC on the anniversary of its loss to plan a "carbon copy" of the first observatory.
If the team later receives confirmation of its proposal, the new OCO-2 venture would formally kick off in October this year, with the aim of getting the re-built satellite to the launch pad in February 2013.
We're thinking here in Europe right now about a very similar case - that of Cryosat-2, the ice monitoring satellite. Cryosat-1 was also destroyed on launch, in 2005. It was re-commissioned and re-built; and the new satellite is now just a few weeks from making its bid for orbit.
Rebuilding is not always a straightforward process. The OCO team is already aware of an issue that confronted Cryosat-2 - namely that some of the parts you need to make your carbon copy are no longer available.
This will necessitate some elements to be redesigned.
But just as with Cryosat-2, OCO-2 science will benefit from the extra years the team has to learn how to handle the data when it eventually comes back to Earth.
For example, the OCO team has been working hand in glove with the Japanese Gosat mission which is also studying greenhouse gases. Dave Crisp:
"The Gosat team adopted us, literally within a week of the loss of our satellite. We'd already been working with them for about four years to try to refine the validation and calibration capabilities of both groups. We're now getting their full data stream pretty much as it's produced. We're analysing it; and the really neat thing about that is it's helping us to validate the algorithms to analyse the OCO data when it becomes available. And we think that because of that, our data should be available a lot sooner than it would have been for the first OCO mission. That will be a big benefit to everybody."
I'll speak more to Cryosat-2 in the coming weeks. I was in the European Space Agency's "mission control" in Darmstadt, Germany, last week as they were preparing for the upcoming launch.
Currently, engineers are having to address a technical issue related to the performance of the second stage of Cryosat-2's rocket, which is a converted ICBM. Once that's resolved, the carbon copy of Europe's first ice mapping satellite will be ready to go.
Watch this space.