A NASA satellite designed to study aerosols' influence on climate and measure solar energy failed to reach orbit this morning. The crash marks the second time in two years that a NASA climate satellite has failed to launch.
The cause appeared to be a problem with the Taurus XL rocket the space agency was using as the vehicle to launch the $424 million satellite, known as Glory, into orbit.
The rocket lifted off from Southern California's Vandenberg Air Force Base just after 5 a.m. Eastern time. Three minutes into the launch, something went wrong, NASA officials said.
"We failed to make orbit," said a visibly upset Omar Baez, the NASA launch director for the Glory mission. "All indications are that the satellite and the rocket are in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."
Baez and other officials from NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp., the makers of the Taurus XL rocket, briefed reporters on the failed launch this morning. The space agency has already started putting together a review panel, known as a "mishap board," to review what went wrong.
Much of the discussion focused on the Taurus XL rocket's fairing, a nose cone designed to shield the Glory satellite as it traveled through Earth's atmosphere. NASA officials said it appears the fairing did not detach from the rocket the way it was supposed to.
A similar problem with the Taurus XL rocket's fairing caused the launch failure of another satellite, the $273 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory, in February 2009. That was the last time NASA used the Taurus XL as a launch vehicle (ClimateWire, Feb. 25, 2009).
Orbital Sciences Corp. subsequently modified the fairing design, based on analyses by a NASA panel that reviewed the OCO launch failure.
The original version of the Taurus rocket used hot, pressurized gas to break frangible joints that hold the fairing in place, beginning a process that ends when pistons push the fairing pieces away and the satellite moves into orbit.
The revised version used in today's Glory launch used cold, compressed nitrogen gas to break those frangible joints. Orbital Sciences Corp. uses the same system in its Minotaur rocket, which has launched successfully three times in the last year.
"I think it's not an understatement to say tonight, we're all pretty devastated," said Rob Crabe, general manager of the rocket maker's Launch Systems Group. "We really went into this flight confident that we had solved the fairing issue, and then we came up with the result that Omar described this evening."
Mike Luther, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, spoke bluntly.
"We believed, going in, we had an acceptable level of risk," he said. "Clearly, we missed something. Now we have to go find out what that is and fix it."
Officials said that, after the OCO satellite failure two years ago, they added more instruments to monitor Glory's launch. Those additional data should give a clearer picture of what went wrong, they said.
The failure of the Glory launch may have broader implications, both for NASA's plans to launch a copy of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and for its overall budget.
The satellite, known as OCO-2, is being prepared for launch in February 2013 aboard the same type of Taurus XL rocket used with Glory. Today's launch failure suggests the space agency may have to revisit those plans, a move likely to add to OCO-2's total cost.
Meanwhile, larger budget questions loom.
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed two years ago when NASA was flush with money from economic stimulus legislation. But the failure to launch Glory comes days after Congress and the White House agreed to a stopgap spending bill that narrowly averted a government shutdown.
House Republicans are pushing for broad cuts to federal science agencies, including NASA, and some lawmakers have suggested it's time for the space agency to abandon climate change research altogether (ClimateWire, Feb. 14).
President Obama's fiscal 2012 budget request for NASA was more generous. The White House proposal would shore up NASA's climate change research and monitoring, increasing the budget of the space agency's Earth science office by $213 million compared to the funding level in 2010, the last time Congress approved a yearlong federal budget.