NASA environmental satellite lost in launch failure
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 24, 2009;
Updated after news conference
NASA's $273 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite crashed into the ocean near Antarctica shortly after launch today from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., atop an Orbital Sciences Corp. Taurus XL booster. Telemetry indicated a protective nose cone fairing failed to separate early in the climb to space, weighing the rocket down and preventing the spacecraft from reaching orbit.
Said John Brunschwyler, manager of the Taurus rocket program for Orbital Sciences: "Our whole team, at a very personal level, are disappointed in the events of this morning. It's very hard and, as I said, at a very personal level, (we're) upset with the results."
The 986-pound satellite's four-stage solid-fuel Taurus XL rocket blasted off at 4:55:30 a.m. EST and roared away from its Vandenberg launch pad about five minutes behind schedule because of a minor technical glitch. The ascent appeared normal and telemetry indicated all systems were working as planned through the first stage burn, stage separation and second stage ignition.
Seven seconds after the second stage fired up, the satellite's protective clamshell nose cone was commanded to separate. The 63-inch-wide carbon composite fairing is designed to separate in two pieces and fall away using small pyrotechnic devices that are activated by a series of electrical pulses.
"We have confirmation that the correct sequence was sent by the software," said Brunschwyler. "We had good power going into this event and we also had a healthy indications of our electronics box that sent the signal. Once that time had passed, which was about three minutes into the flight, we observed various pieces of telemetry that, of course, we then try to correlate because at first, being humans, we don't necessarily believe one piece of data."
While engineers were studying telemetry, the Taurus XL's third and fourth stage motors ignited as planned. But it soon became clear the fairing was still in place and that its weight was preventing the rocket from accelerating normally.
"The fairing has considerable weight relative to the portion of the vehicle that's flying," Brunschwyler said. "So when it separates off, you get a jump in acceleration. We did not have that jump in acceleration. As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit. The initial indications are the vehicle did not have enough delta V (velocity) to reach obit and landed just short of Antarctica in the ocean."
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was designed to study natural and man-made carbon dioxide emission and absorption to help scientists assess how the greenhouse gas might be contributing to global warming.
"OCO was an important mission to measure critical elements of the carbon cycle," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth sciences division at agency headquarters.
"Over the next several days, weeks and months, we're going to carefully evaluate how to move forward and advance that science given our evaluation of the assets that are on orbit now, the assets of our international partners and the existence of flight spares in order to thoughtfully put together a program, as rapidly as possible, to pick up where OCO left off."
But Freilich said it was too soon to say whether a follow-on mission might be approved or how long that process might take. In the near term, NASA plans to name an investigation board to determine what went wrong with today's launching and what might be needed to ensure no similar problems happen on future flights.
A Taurus is scheduled to launch another NASA environmental research satellite - Glory - later this year. Officials said today it's too early to say how the mishap might affect those plans.
This was the eighth launch of a Taurus XL rocket and the second mission failure. It was NASA's first mission using the solid-fuel rocket after a certification process intended to ensure safety and reliability. A sticker on the ill-fated rocket called attention to that certification, signifying what Brunschwyler described before launch as a process "to ensure it's the lowest risk possible for these valuable payloads."