NASA Satellite Crashes Back to Earth

February 24, 2009

The rocket carrying NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) suffered a technical glitch early this morning that caused the satellite to crash into the ocean near Antarctica.

In development for nine years, the observatory was meant to orbit Earth and monitor global carbon dioxide emissions.

Data from the satellite would have helped researchers better understand distribution of the greenhouse gas, possibly improving climate models. (Get the facts on global warming.)

NASA officials are now calling the $270-million mission a total loss.

"Certainly for the science community, it's a huge disappointment," Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division in Washington, D.C., said this morning at a briefing.

"OCO was an important mission to measure important elements of the carbon cycle."

Huge Disappointment

The Taurus XL rocket carrying the OCO successfully launched at 4:55 a.m. ET from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Countdown had proceeded normally except for one non-threatening and unrelated glitch, said Chuck Dovale, NASA launch director for the mission.

"We did have stage-zero ignition," Dovale said, referring to the initial firing of the rocket's launch boosters.

Three minutes after liftoff, NASA officials began to get hints that something was wrong.

Computers on Earth sent the proper signals for the rocket to shed the clamshell structure housing the satellite, but the device failed to separate.

"As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit," said John Brunschwyler, a program manager with Orbital Sciences Corporation, which built the Taurus rocket for NASA.

NASA's Dovale called the failure a "huge disappointment for the entire team."

An inquiry will be organized to study the failure, NASA officials said, and the agency will be evaluating the best way to proceed with its Earth-observing goals.

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