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Satellite Fails to Launch from California, Would have Studied Carbon Dioxide

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Early this morning, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) attempted to launch into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, but as it took off, the payload fairing failed to separate from the vehicle during ascent. sending it flying back to earth into the ocean near Antarctica. The $270 million two-year project, headed by the folks at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, would have studied the entire planet's atmospheric carbon dioxide, looking to find where green house gases are released into and pulled from the air.

"The mission will help scientists determine carbon dioxide's sources, or the places on Earth where carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere, and also its sinks - where it is being removed," wrote program executive Eric Ianson on his blog. "The mystery of carbon dioxide is that we know approximately how much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere each year from human activity, but we can only account for about half of the carbon dioxide that doesn’t remain in the atmosphere."

And that's the core issue--we basically know where carbon dioxide comes from, but where and how does it all leave, or sink from, the atmosphere? "Identifying such sources and sinks will shed light on how carbon circulates from land to air to sea and back again — a process that remains poorly understood," finds Wired. "Things could be much worse if it weren't for what are known as carbon sinks: Sixty percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by man has been absorbed out of the atmosphere. But scientists aren't sure where most of the sinks responsible are located, or what determines their efficiency over time."