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Published: Wednesday, 2/25/2009

Satellite crash sets back carbon dioxide research


WASHINGTON - A new satellite to track the chief culprit in global warming crashed into the ocean near Antarctica after launch yesterday, dealing a major setback to NASA's weak network for monitoring Earth and its environment from above.

The $280 million mission was originated 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, worsening 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.NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory was going to explain Earth's capture of carbon dioxide, which now appears to be slowing and could accelerate global warming, said Elisabeth Holland, who helped write the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Minutes after launch yesterday 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 didn't release and fall away, and the extra weight meant the satellite couldn't reach orbit.

The 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, NASA science chief Ed Weiler said.

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