A satellite that was launched Tuesday morning to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ended up in the ocean instead of in orbit.
NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California shortly before 2 a.m. Pacific time, but something went wrong with the rocket that was supposed to carry it into space.
A preliminary NASA investigation shows that a protective shroud around the satellite failed to break free. As a result, the Orbital Sciences Corporation rocket and the satellite ended up in the ocean near Antarctica.
The satellite was supposed to be a powerful new tool to study carbon dioxide, a key component of global warming. A Japanese satellite with similar abilities is currently in orbit and operating successfully. Even so, the launch failure is a costly disappointment — scientists had been working on this mission for more than eight years.
The four-stage Taurus XL rocket was carrying the satellite destined to travel with five other atmosphere-monitoring satellites currently orbiting the Earth in what is known as the Earth Observing System Afternoon Constellation, or A-Train.
Four minutes into its eight-minute launch window, mission officials say the rocket lifted off and burned for 1 minute and 24 seconds before the second stage of the rocket ignited, which burned out, as planned, 2 minutes and 43 seconds after launch.
Just seconds later, the next stage ignited, which should have carried the $278 million carbon dioxide detector even closer to its orbit. At this time, mission officials say, the clamshell-like protector that shielded the observatory during its launch should have separated from the rocket and fallen away. This didn't happen.
Scientists say early indications are that the failure of the protector to separate from the rocket contributed to the failure of the observatory to reach orbit.
Computer data showed that the signal to release the protective cover was sent to the rocket, but other data, including acceleration, temperature and electrical signals, indicated the cover remained on the rocket, said John Brunschwyler, Taurus program manager for rocket manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation, in a NASA news conference Tuesday.
"As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit," Brunschwyler said.
The Taurus model rocket first flew in 1994, and has carried 13 satellites to orbit. Tuesday's launch was the eighth launch for the rocket system and its second failure. The only other launch failure occurred on Sept. 21, 2001, while carrying a high-resolution Earth-imaging satellite and an ozone studying instrument.
NASA is convening a team to investigate the failure.