Failed launch sends Glory satellite into Pacific

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By The Staff

WASHINGTON  — A rocket carrying an Earth-observation satellite plummeted into the Pacific Ocean after a failed launch attempt Friday, the second-straight blow to NASA’s weakened environmental monitoring program.
The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA’s Glory satellite lifted off early Friday morning from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but fell to the sea several minutes later. The same thing happened to another climate-monitoring satellite two years ago with the same type of rocket.
“We failed to make orbit,” NASA launch director Omar Baez said at a press conference Friday. “Indications are that the satellite and rocket ... is in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere.”
The Los Alamos National Laboratory also had a vested interest in the flight.
And understandably, Herbert Funsten, senior scientist of the International, Space and Response Division, was extremely disappointed with the failed launch.
“This is definitely a major setback for NASA climate sciences as well as future missions on Taurus rockets. Our ability to peek into the future is now somewhat blinded,”
Funston said.
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, and now Glory, were both designed to provide critical information on key parts of the complex system that underlies climate and its variability, and both missions failed to make orbit, Funston said.
“At a time of urgency, our ability to test models and predict course of climate change has been dramatically reduced,” Funston said.
Officials explained that a protective shell atop the rocket didn’t come off the satellite as it should have about three minutes after launch. That left the Glory spacecraft without the velocity to reach orbit.
The 2009 failed satellite, which would have studied global warming, crashed into the ocean near Antarctica. Officials said Glory likely wound up landing in the same area. Both were on Taurus rockets launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va.
NASA has already started a board to investigate the mishap. The next NASA Earth sciences launch on a Taurus rocket is scheduled for 2013 but the space agency can still change launch vehicles if the Taurus proves unreliable, NASA Earth Science Director Mike Freilich told The Associated Press.
“I don’t know if that’s necessary or not,” Freilich said. “We’re not going to fly on a vehicle in which we don’t have confidence.”
The $424 million mission is managed by the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. NASA paid Orbital about $54 million to launch Glory, according to Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski. The Taurus rocket has launched nine times, six of them successfully.
NASA and Orbital spent more than a year studying and trying to fix the problem that caused 2009’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory to fail. The payload fairing — a clamshell-shaped protective covering for the satellite — did not open to release the satellite.
The same thing happened with Glory, officials said.
“We really went into the (Glory) flight feeling we had nailed the fairing issue,” said Ronald Grabe, general manager of Orbital’s launch systems division and a former space shuttle commander.