The new Earth-observing satellite was intended to improve understanding of how the Sun and atmospheric particles called aerosols affect Earth's climate.
NASA's Glory satellite with solar wings that would have powered it in orbit (Artist's rendition courtesy NASA)
NASA says the problem was that the protective shell atop the Taurus XL rocket, called the fairing, did not separate as expected about three minutes after launch.
The fairing, which covers and protects the spacecraft during launch and ascent, underwent a redesign of its separation system after a similar failure two years ago.
NASA's previous launch attempt of an Earth science spacecraft, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory onboard a Taurus XL on February 24, 2009, also failed to reach orbit when the fairing did not separate.
NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory Mishap Investigation Board reviewed launch data and the fairing separation system design, and developed a corrective action plan. The plan was implemented by Taurus XL manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation. In October 2010, NASA's Flight Planning Board confirmed the successful closure of the corrective actions.
NASA has begun the process of creating another Mishap Investigation Board to evaluate the cause of today's launch failure.
NASA Launch Director Omar Baez (Photo courtesy NASA)
NASA Launch Director Omar Baez said today's countdown and launch went smoothly and the teams "experienced no anomalies" until the point at which they should have received data indicating that the fairing had separated from the vehicle.
The launch proceeded as planned from its liftoff at 5:09 am EST through the ignition of the Taurus XL's second stage. The fairing failure occurred during the second stage engine burn.
Once more data is analyzed, the teams hope to have a better understanding of what went wrong and where in the South Pacific the spacecraft may have landed.
Technical issues with ground support equipment for the Taurus XL launch vehicle led to the scrub of the February 23 launch attempt, which itself was a setback from a November 2010 launch date.
Glory was a remote-sensing Earth-orbiting observatory designed to achieve two primary mission objectives.
One objective was to determine the global distribution, physical properties, and chemical composition of natural and man-made aerosols that are suspended in the atmosphere. This information will help scientists to quantify the direct and indirect effects of aerosols on climate.
The other objective was to continue collection of total solar irradiance data for the long-term climate record.
The Taurus XL also carried the first of NASA's Educational Launch of Nanosatellite missions - three small satellites called CubeSats, which were designed and created by university and college students at Montana State University, the University of Colorado in Boulder, and several Kentucky universities that combined their efforts to become Kentucky Space Consortium.
Ron Grabe of Orbital Sciences Corp. (Photo courtesy NASA)
Project management for Glory is the responsibility of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia is the launch service provider to Kennedy of the four-stage Taurus XL rocket and is also builder of the Glory satellite for Goddard.
Ron Grabe, general manager for Orbital Sciences Corp. launch systems group, said that after the first failure of the fairing system in 2009, the company spent two years investigating and analyzing, redesigning and testing the components of the fairing separation system. The company replaced it with another system, which flew successfully three times on another Orbital vehicle. "We really went into this flight confident that we had nailed the fairing issue," said Grabe.
Mike Luther, deputy associate administrator for programs with NASA's Earth Science Mission Directorate (Photo courtesy NASA)
The resulting launch failure "devastated" the teams on both the industry and the NASA sides, said Grabe. "There's a great deal of emotional investment on the part of all the players on any space flight, but that's probably doubly so on a return to flight like this one," he said.
"I think it's not an understatement to say that we're all pretty devastated," said Grabe. "But we will recover, the team will bounce back because we're all professionals and Orbital will bounce back with the Taurus vehicle."
Orbital will convene a failure investigation board that will include a representative from NASA to determine the cause of today's launch failure.
Mike Luther, deputy associate administrator for programs with NASA Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters said that going into the launch all teams believed they had "an acceptable level of risk." Clearly, "we missed something," he said. "So we've now got to go off, find out what that is, and fix it and that is in fact what we'll do."
In his 27 years with NASA, Luther has been responsible for the development and launch of more than 50 successful remote sensing spacecraft and Space Shuttle payloads.
"The Glory mission would have made important measurements for the understanding of Earth as a system and impacts of climate change," said Luther. "But the Earth Science Division will continue to make significant contributions to the understanding of the Earth with its 13 existing operating missions and a cadre of aircraft and ground networks and data systems."
"In addition," said Luther, "we will continue to plan the path forward into the next decade with a dozen missions planned for launch in the next 10 years."
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