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NASA scraps budget-busting GeoCarb greenhouse gas observatory project

Being over budget, behind schedule, becoming obsolete, and impeding other projects isn't a way to get a green light

NASA has cancelled its mission to launch a greenhouse gas-monitoring satellite called GeoCarb, but climate-conscious individuals shouldn't be worried it's giving up on tracking climate change, the space agency said.

It cited delays and a massive budget overspend as reasons for the project termination. Originally planned for five years and with a cap of $170.9 million on lifecycle costs, GeoCarb has been under development for six years, and its lifetime cost estimate has ballooned to more than $600 million.

To make matters worse for GeoCarb, monetary concerns and timelines weren't the only problems with the project – the tech was getting old, too. 

When it was given the go-ahead in 2016, GeoCarb was state-of-the-art, but NASA said there have been a number of advancements in greenhouse gas monitoring that make the hardware on the six-year old project obsolete, like the EMIT sensors recently installed on the ISS that are capable of detecting methane plumes from orbit.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA HQ, said the decision to kill GeoCarb was difficult, but necessary. "We look forward to accomplishing our commitment to state-of-the-art climate observation in a more efficient and cost-effective way," Zurbuchen said. 

In addition to small sensors like the ISS' EMIT array, NASA also said it plans to launch the Earth System Observatory by the end of this decade. NASA said the satellite will be capable of creating "a 3D, holistic view of Earth, from bedrock to atmosphere," again making a satellite with limited capabilities unnecessary.

NASA said the ESO "addresses the highest priorities for Earth science as described by the National Academies," providing a more holistic view of our planet, its climate and how changes affect the entire world. If GeoCarb was to continue, it could have delayed the ESO by as much as an additional two years.

What GeoCarb could have been

Had GeoCarb been allowed to finish development, it would have sat in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the Americas, where it would monitor plant health and vegetation stress, and probe "natural sources, sinks and exchange processes that control carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane in the atmosphere," NASA said. 

GeoCarb would have also taken daily measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane and carbon monoxide with a horizontal ground resolution of 3 to 6 miles (5 to 10 km), and measured solar-induced fluorescence, a signal related to photosynthesis and plant stress. 

It was a researcher-led project conducted as part of NASA's Earth Venture mission program. The program gave funding to small orbital investigations, with GeoCarb being led by researchers from the University of Oklahoma. NASA said it would collaborate with the team on an "orderly close out of the project." 

NASA said it still plans to prioritize greenhouse gas monitoring, which it will do by ensuring the first Earth System Explorers mission (a similar funding project to the one that gave GeoCarb its start) is related to greenhouse gasses.

The agency said it also plans to use commercial and international partners to obtain additional greenhouse gas data, kick off new airborne observation projects and by extending existing carbon observation missions, like the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 mission aboard the ISS. ®

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