VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A rocket carrying a NASA satellite lit up the pre-dawn skies Wednesday on a mission to track atmospheric carbon dioxide, the chief culprit behind global warming.
The Delta 2 rocket blasted off from California at 2:56 a.m. and released the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite in low-Earth orbit 56 minutes later, bringing relief to mission officials who lost a similar spacecraft five years ago.
The flight was "a perfect ride into space," said Ralph Basilio, the OCO-2 project manager, at a post-launch press conference.
Power-supplying solar arrays deployed, initial checks showed the spacecraft was healthy and two-way communications were established, he said.
The launch was canceled on Tuesday morning because of a failure in ground equipment.
NASA tried in 2009 to launch a satellite dedicated to studying carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas caused by the burning of fossil fuels. A satellite plunged into the ocean off Antarctica after a hardware failure with the Taurus XL rocket.
After the loss, NASA spent several years and millions of dollars building a near-identical twin.
Like the original, OCO-2 was designed to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide from 438 miles above the Earth's surface. Its polar orbit will allow it to cover about 80 percent of the globe.
About 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released yearly from factories and cars. About half of the greenhouse gas is trapped in the atmosphere, while the rest is sucked up by trees and oceans.
The goal of the $468 million mission, designed to last at least two years, is to study the processes behind how the environment absorbs carbon dioxide.
NASA spent more money on the new mission, mainly because it's using a more expensive rocket. Engineers also had to replace obsolete satellite parts, which drove up the price tag.
Completing spacecraft system checks will take about two weeks and then OCO-2 will be moved into its operational orbit, joining a loose formation of other Earth-observing satellites informally called "the A-train," said Basilio, the project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
There will then be a period of instrument checks.
Production of science data is expected early next year, he said.