NASA's Glory Satellite Crashes in Pacific; Agency Blames Nose Cone

NASA's Glory satellite meant to measure global warming; nose cone didn't open.

ByABC News
March 4, 2011, 11:38 AM

March 4, 2011— -- 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.

Click here to see the launch and hear word of the failure.

"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."