NASA: Satellite Failure Likely Caused by Balky Nose Cone

The U.S. space agency said today that the dramatic failure of one of its most expensive satellites minutes after liftoff was caused by a faulty fairing, the clamshell structure that encapsulates the science payload in the nose cone.

In a hastily prepared statement, NASA noted that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory was compromised shortly after its 4:55 a.m. EST launch from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. The space agency said that the fairing on the Taurus XL launch vehicle failed to separate, trapping the satellite inside without power.

John Brunschwyler, the Orbital Sciences Corp. program manager for the Taurus XL, noted that the compromised upper stage landed in the Antarctic Ocean uneventfully.

(You can view NASA's post-failure press briefing by clicking here.)

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory had been dedicated to monitoring global warming by carbon dioxide from space. The half-ton satellite costs US $280 million and required nine years of work to create.

"Certainly for the science community it's a huge disappointment," Brunschwyler lamented. "It's taken so long to get here."

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory launch manager Charles Dovale added that today's accident should probably postpone this summer's launch of another U.S. satellite, Glory, which will be used to measure soot and aerosols in the atmosphere.

The NASA statement said an investigation by its Mishap Investigation Board will be opened soon to determine the cause of this morning's launch failure.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.