Ending a lull of nearly three years, the Delta 2 rocket returned to flight Wednesday at Vandenberg Air Force Base carrying NASA’s carbon observatory for a second chance to study a key contributor to global climate change.

The United Launch Alliance-built Delta 2 rocket, standing nearly 13 stories tall, blasted off at 2:56 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg. Liftoff occurred a day later than initially planned because a flawed valve at the launch pad halted the countdown Tuesday about 45 seconds before blastoff.

NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, which weighed about 999 pounds and is about the size of a telephone booth, rode inside the rocket’s nose cone for a $467.7 million mission designed to last two years. Orbital Sciences Corp. built the spacecraft frame. 

OCO-2 is a “carbon copy” of the original OCO craft which ended up in the ocean after an Orbital Sciences Taurus rocket failed following liftoff from Vandenberg in 2009. The launch vehicle’s nose cone failed to fall away as planned, dooming the mission.

Wednesday morning, the OCO-2 Twitter account excitedly proclaimed, “YES! We have Fairing Separation and I am free! Space here I come!” 

Spacecraft separation, captured with an on-board rocket camera and shown on NASA television, occurred approximately an hour after the rocket departed into thick fog that prevented spectators from catching a glimpse of the mission which will seek clues to climate change. 

During a post-launch press conference, scientists and engineers, many of whom were involved in the first mission, were elated at the successful flight and the observatory’s first milestones while in orbit.

“It is a beautiful morning,” said Ralph Basilio, OCO-2 project manager with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Bolden visit

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. talks Monday about the space agency’s upcoming Earth science missions. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“We’re very happy to see this new day, this still dark morning but bright for all of us,” said Mike Miller, a senior vice president for the science and environmental satellite program from Orbital Sciences Corp. Space Systems Group.

A year after the first failure NASA scientists received permission for a second mission.

“I think it’s a testament to the perceived importance of this mission that we got a second chance,” Michael Freilich, NASA Earth Science Division director, said earlier this week.

The loss of the original OCO mission in February 2009 was “a tremendous heartbreak” for the team and a loss felt personally for those worked for years on the craft.

“It was truly devastating,” Basilio said. “It was a true sense of loss. But as a member of that original OCO team, I want to speak on behalf of everyone that contributed, we are excited about this golden opportunity to be able to finally complete some unfinished business. This launch doesn’t signal the end of a road, but it’s the next step to a very important mission.”

Before it’s put into operation, OCO-2 now will go through a number of steps to ensure it is healthy and ready to start collecting observations.

The carbon-sensing spacecraft will monitor Earth’s breathing, NASA said.

“We’re constantly trying to expand our knowledge of our environment, of this planet and OCO-2 … gives us an opportunity to learn more about the planet than we’ve ever known before,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. while standing on a hill above SLC-2 Monday.

OCO-2 will reveal details about the carbon cycle, credited with contributing to global climate change — “the challenge facing our generation,” according to NASA officials.

“With the launch of this spacecraft, decision makers and scientists will get a much better idea of the role of carbon dioxide in climate change as OCO-2 measures this greenhouse gas globally and provides incredibly new insights into where and how carbon dioxide is moving into, and then out of, the atmosphere,” said Betsy Edwards, OCO-2 program executive for NASA.

OCO-2 sports one instrument that will collect hundreds of thousands measurements each day as it orbits Earth from 438 miles high.

“These measurements will provide us with a global description of carbon dioxide levels with an unprecedented coverage and resolution that we’ve never had before because this is our first mission dedicated to studying carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere,” Edwards said.

The launch also signaled the return of ULA’s Delta 2 rocket, which has been a workhorse for medium-sized spacecraft.

“I do dearly love this rocket,” said Tim Dunn, NASA launch manager, who has worked on Delta 2 since the 1990s, originally while employed with ULA and now with NASA. “When it appeared three years ago we had flown our final manifested mission … from Vandenberg in the fall of 2011 it was a bit of a sad time for me. But I did know ULA had five whitetails, Delta 2s mthat they had manufactured. I knew there was some hope for the future. “

NASA purchased four of those remaining Delta 2 rockets for missions. Along with OCO-2, another NASA mission is planned for November to carry a soil moisture observatory.

“Knowing we have four Delta 2 missions ahead of us I’m thrilled,” Dunn added.

OCO-2 is the second of five Earth science missions planned this year by NASA. The space agency has 11 more Earth observing missions to launch between now and 2021.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.