We’re all geeks in one way or another. Sports geeks. Music geeks. Fashion geeks. As for me, I’m a total space geek. So one day I took a shot in the dark and applied to be a part of the NASA Social team. When I saw the email, I almost couldn’t believe it…
“NASA Social Credential: Accepted
Congratulations! You have been selected to attend the NASA Social on June 30 to July 1 to cover the launch of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.”
Sincerely. F***ing. NASA. I got to attend a space launch, tour an Air Force base, and had press and media access to some of the smartest people on Earth…I TOTALLY GEEKED OUT! Not to mention this mission could very well change our world forever. And I now have the pleasure of sharing my experience with you.
The Spacecraft: “a beautiful machine”
“It’s a beautiful machine, it’s my baby” said Randy Pollock as I ate my sack lunch. I looked up at him like an eager kid on a field trip. He’s been working on the OCO project since its inception over 13 years ago. The original OCO tragically failed to reach orbit in 2009. Five years and $467 million later, I could only imagine what he’s feeling today.
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is about the size of a telephone booth, weighs 999 pounds, and is full of impressive technology that allows it to orbit Earth while measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in our atmosphere.
The OCO-2 will collect millions of measurements with three parallel, high resolution spectrometers which divide sunlight reflected off the Earth’s surface and measure it by recognizing the specific colors of infrared light absorbed by CO2 molecules. *Whew* that was a mouthful. Like Randy said, it’s a beautiful machine.
The Mission: Watching the Earth breathe
This is the first NASA mission to measure carbon dioxide in our atmosphere from space. The OCO-2 is the newest addition to the A-Train, a constellation of other Earth science satellites following each other in orbit (a part of NASA’s Earth Right Now initiative). The OCO-2 will lead the train, orbiting the planet every 99 minutes. It’s mission is to collect data for the next two years; although they foresee it operating for far longer…pending future funds.
(Public support is necessary for organizations like NASA to conduct these kinds of missions. Please take time to thank your state senators and congressional representatives. With enough public interest, who knows where space exploration could lead us in the coming years.)
The Science: Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change
Carbon dioxide is called a “greenhouse gas” because it traps heat from the Sun in our atmosphere, consequently playing a leading role in climate change. The Earth’s natural carbon cycles, which I’ll go into further detail on my next post, exchange carbon between the land, sea and atmosphere. The OCO-2 will grant us insight into the regions and rates at which CO2 is being absorbed and released around the world.
It’s no secret that humans have been aggressively clearing forests and burning fossil fuels over the past couple hundred years. We’ve been injecting CO2 into the atmosphere, but not taking any back like the ocean and forests do. Currently the CO2 level in our atmosphere is at 400 parts per million, up from 280 parts per million in the years just before the Industrial revolution, and higher than they’ve ever been in the past 800,000 years and beyond (according to ice-core samples). But here’s the kicker: we create more carbon dioxide than what we’re measuring in the atmosphere. We’d like to understand where the missing carbon dioxide is going, and if that process will continue, stop, or even reverse.
The Launch: no shortage of peanuts
I shoveled a handful of peanuts in my mouth as I eagerly await the launch of the OCO-2 with my geeky comrades, some of whom traveled from as far as Pennsylvania and parts of Canada to witness this momentous event. I wasn’t hungry. The peanuts are a longstanding JPL tradition. No peanuts, no launch.
As mission control reads over the pre flight checklist, I can feel my heart race. This must be what it feels like for a teenage girl who’s about to go backstage at a One Direction concert. But alas, there’s a launchpad malfunction, and since there’s only a 30-second launch window to rendezvous with the A-Train constellation…there’ll be no launch tonight. The group is convinced I didn’t eat enough peanuts.
So after an idle Tuesday soaking in the Lompoc culture and the beautiful murals that paint their town, the NASA Social team rendezvoused once more at the SLC-2 launch site. The fog was thick, as it was the night before, and although the team was heavily downsized (most of our members had to catch flights home) there was definitely no shortage of peanuts.
You could hear a pin drop as everyone held their breath during the countdown “10…9…8…” All my senses were on high alert, ready to absorb every detail of this moment, as it will no doubt be one I remember forever “3…2…engine start…1…zero…liftoff!” And on July 2, 2014 at 2:56am, the OCO-2 left Earth.
My binoculars were in-hand as I heard the low rumblings of a distant Delta II rocket. I desperately searched the skyline through the thick fog, hoping to see the fiery glow… where is it… I couldn’t see it! The rumbling reached its climax, and slowly faded back into silence.
The silence was broken by laughter; we couldn’t help it. All the anticipation we shared was met with mixture of slight disappointment and delayed excitement. (It’s not a successful launch until the OCO-2 reaches orbit, a crucial step the original OCO failed to do.) Eventually we could all breathe easy because the OCO-2 successfully made it into orbit alongside its A-Train constellation. After a few weeks of testing and calibration, the OCO-2 will begin its two-year expedition.
The Experience: a NASA Social family
I landed in Santa Barbara feeling like a puppy in search of a wolf pack. I don’t have a degree in astrophysics, I don’t work for the government…I don’t even have an SLR camera. But what I do have is a burning passion for learning, meeting new people, and making new experiences come to life. And that, I quickly found out, is exactly what NASA Social is all about.
I’ve never been surrounded by so many diversely impressive people. Everyone was a genius in their own right, and did I mention extremely social?! NASA sure knows how to pick ‘em. If you’re interested in space exploration and have a passion for sharing experiences via social media, learn more about NASA Social.
Although I didn’t get to actually “see” the launch, I can say I was there when the mission left Earth. I also got to see a Delta II rocket up close, interview a science team on NASA Television, and befriend some impressive human beings. And it’s our collective hope that the OCO-2 will give us the knowledge we need to keep calling this planet “home” for millennia to come.
Thanks for reading,
WATCH our interview on NASA Television
WATCH the OCO-2 launch
Check for updates on the mission
Check out more of my pictures from the trip
Read these articles by Mika Mckinnon (she’s awesome)
FOLLOW NASA to stay connected