NASA's Glory satellite, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California before dawn Friday, crashed in the Pacific Ocean, apparently when the nose cone on its Taurus XL rocket failed to open as planned.
Glory was a $424 million mission intended to measure the effect of dust and soot in the atmosphere on global climate change. Scientists believe such airborne particles act as a sort of sunscreen, cooling the planet slightly, but they wanted to measure the effect more precisely.
Now they'll have to wait. The rocket launched on schedule at 2:09 a.m., PT, and rose smoothly into the night sky, but three minutes later engineers reported there was no signal the nose cone, also called a launch fairing, had fallen away as planned. It is supposed to open like a clamshell after protecting the satellite as the rocket rises through the atmosphere.
"We are at T-plus 300 seconds," said a controller over a communications link after launch. "The vehicle speed is indicating underperformance, which is expected due to a fairing not separating." With the nose cone weighing it down, the rocket could not reach orbit.
"This is a pretty tough night for all of us," said Ronald Grabe, a former space shuttle astronaut who is now a manager for Orbital Sciences Corp, which built the rocket. "We're all pretty devastated."
It is the second failure in a row for an earth-observing satellite launched by a Taurus rocket -- and, apparently, the second caused by a nose cone that would not separate. In 2009 NASA lost a probe called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory under very similar circumstances; Orbital Sciences and the space agency said they investigated thoroughly to make sure there would not be a repeat.
"We failed to make orbit," said Omar Baez, NASA's launch director, at a news conference with Grabe and other mission managers. "All indications are that the satellite and the rocket are in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."
Glory would have spent at least three years in orbit, passing over every part of the earth daily, to measure the effect of so-called aerosol particles in the upper atmosphere. The vast majority of such particles are natural -- caused by forest fires, volcanoes and high-level winds which can carry desert dust for thousands of miles -- but scientists say an increasing amount comes from the burning of fossil fuels.
Within hours NASA announced it had begun setting up a "mishap investigation board," as it does after all failures, to determine precisely what went wrong. Taurus XL rockets have been successful in six out of nine launch attempts. NASA spokesman Steve Cole said there was not a backup satellite to replace Glory.
"We really went into the flight feeling we had nailed the fairing issue," said Grabe. "The team will bounce back because they're all professionals."