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NASA postpones OCO-2 launch due to water flow issue

Members of the NASA Social program invited to tour Vandenberg before the OCO-2 launch take pictures in front of the Delta II rocket loaded with the satellite.
Members of the NASA Social program invited to tour Vandenberg before the OCO-2 launch take pictures in front of the Delta II rocket loaded with the satellite.
Derek Letellier

After waiting five years since the failed launch of the first Orbiting Carbon Observatory to try again with the Orbital Carbon Observatory-2, scientists and engineers will wait one more day to launch their project.

NASA's carbon-detecting satellite, which had a scheduled launch this morning just before 3 a.m. local time from Vandenberg Air Force Base, experienced a last-second scrub of the mission due to a problem with the launch pad. The space agency needed to launch the rocket within a 30-second launch window to place the instrument within a constellation of satellites called the A-train, which travel in close proximity to each other along a similar orbit to combine scientific readings of the Earth.

The project, abbreviated as OCO-2, will send a satellite with three high-powered spectrometers into space to take readings of the planet's natural carbon cycle. Scientists involved with the mission expect the readings from the satellite to provide better information about ocean and land-based carbon dioxide absorption sites, also known as natural sinks. The data, combined with readings from other satellites measuring various aspects of Earth and its atmosphere, will give scientists a more complete picture of the planet.

This morning's launch appeared to be on pace to launch with no weather hazards predicted to delay the process. With 46 seconds left before the scheduled launch time, officials put a hold on the launch because of a water flow problem on the launch pad. The mechanism dampens the acoustics created by the launch to better protect launch pad systems. NASA planned to inspect the water flow system later today before making an official determination as to the status of the launch. If technicians fix the problem, NASA plans to try launching again just before 3 a.m. tomorrow.

The space agency's first OCO satellite experienced a catastrophic failure at its launch in 2009 when the Taurus-XL launch vehicle commissioned to take the OCO into space failed to properly separate after takeoff, causing the rocket to crash in the ocean near Antarctica. While OCO-2's design remains similar to its predecessor, NASA selected the Delta II rocket as the launch vehicle for this mission.

Spectators gathered at a fog and mist-covered viewing area off-base in the early hours of the morning to view the expected launch. While the crowd expressed disappointment at the mission being scrubbed, Stephanie Smith, social media specialist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, gave words of encouragement about a mission that previously experienced a worst-case scenario.

"Better a good scrub than a bad launch," Smith said.