Contingency plan

‘It appears we have a contingency on the OCO mission.’ With these words, the blood of many space science researchers will have run cold.

‘It appears we have a contingency on the OCO [Orbiting Carbon Observatory] mission.’ With these words, the blood of many space science researchers will have run cold.

NASA’s OCO, launched early on 24 February in California, has ended in failure: the fairing of the Taurus XL launcher failed to separate and, instead of being injected into orbit, the satellite appears to have crashed into the sea off Antarctica.

It is a major setback. OCO was to have measured CO2 levels from space, pinpointing sources and sinks for the gas, determining how fast they produce and absorb CO2 and improving our knowledge of climate change. It was also an important project for the UK and Europe, where researchers were keenly looking forward to sharing OCO’s results. All hopes are now pinned on a Japanese project, GOSAT, which was launched in January.

Failure on launch is particularly galling for space science projects. OCO took seven years to build and cost $270million (£186million). Imagine all that work, design and exhaustive testing, gone in just under a minute through a faulty system on a launcher — a factor entirely beyond the control of the project members.

NASA had not used a Taurus XL rocket before this; the system is the smallest ground-based launcher on its books and, so far, has had a 75 per cent success rate in its eight launches. Those do not sound like good odds for a high-value cargo and NASA is said to be reviewing its decision to use Taurus XL to launch a mission  in June called Glory to study carbon soot and other aerosols in the atmosphere. Glory’s project team must be heaving a sigh of relief right now.

The issue of launchers is one that is going to become increasingly pressing in the next few years. With the Space Shuttle on the verge of going out of service, one important launcher will no longer be available. Commercial spaceflight is beginning to ramp up and numerous other countries, including China, India and Japan, have launch systems available. Failures, of course, happen, but one could hardly blame any space science project leader for looking nervously over the reliability figures when deciding which rocket will take the precious cargo into orbit.

The UK is a major player in space science, exploration and satellite technologies; however, it is not a member of the launcher club anymore. Despite the success of the Black Arrow project in 1969 and 1970, the development of launcher technology was abandoned after being deemed non-cost effective. Ever since, British satellites have hitched a lift. Britain holds the dishonourable distinction of being the only country to develop launcher technology, succeed in it, then abandon it.

More pragmatic than most, or just short-sighted? With our remit of covering — and celebrating, wherever possible — innovation, you can probably guess which side of that particular question The Engineer would argue. We would hope that a government of today would not sacrifice a leading position in such strategically important technology (and Black Arrow was well ahead of its time) on the altar of economics. Unfortunately, with the current economic climate, that is far from unlikely.

In particular, we are looking at SABRE, the air-breathing rocket engine being developed by Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines (REL), and the reusable Skylon spacecraft designed around it. Born out of another example of British space foresight, the cancellation of the HOTOL launcher project in the 1980s, SABRE’s development team includes some of the veterans of the Black Arrow team, leading thermodynamicists from the ranks of Rolls-Royce’s aerospace engineers and a new generation of rocket scientists. REL received a £1m grant from the British National Space Centre, representing a major change in government attitude towards space technology — a small amount, perhaps, but a possible indication that someone in power thinks it is time to re-enter the re-entry business.

No doubt there will be pressure on the funding as the economy struggles further. Rocketry is an exciting and glamorous area of engineering but it is expensive. However, the value of space science to the UK economy — and the value of the data collected by the satellites, whether it is for commercial or research applications — is vast. When we have spoken to members of the British space science community over the past few years, we have got the impression that launchers are seen as a problem that is being solved and not really worthy of much attention. The OCO team, we would like to bet, do not see it that way.

Stuart Nathan, special projects editor