UPDATED: NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory has unsuccessful launch

  • Chicago (IL) - NASA is reporting that NASA's OCO (Orbiting Carbon Observatory) "failed to reach orbit after its 4:55am EST liftoff Tuesday from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base." While the rocket physically reached its location in orbit, a failure on the launch vehicle has prevented the satellite from exiting the craft. As of right now, barring some later ability to retrieve the craft, OCO is encased in its eternal tomb in orbit above the Earth.

    NASA's OCO contains several spectral analyzers designed to detect trace levels of a host of gases, including CO2. Its two-year mission would've mapped the entire surface of the Earth's level of CO2 once every 16 days.

    The preliminary indications are a failure on the Taurus XL launch vehicle. Specifically, the fairing failed to separate. The fairing is the protective covering structure encapsulating the satellite and protecting it from high velocity and high pressure winds as it leaves Earth's atmosphere.

    NASA has convened a investigative board to determine the official cause of the failure.

    NASA's OCO was part of a five-part train of satellite which would operate in concert with one another, completely visiting the full surface area of the globe once every 16 days. The satellites would look for various greenhouse gases, tracing and recording their impact and movement over a two year mission.

     February 24, 2009 - 4:27pm CST
    TG Daily reported on this story immediately after NASA issued a press release early this morning indicating they had an unsuccessful launch. Since that time several more details have been made available. NASA's original press release is recorded here in its entirety:
    "WASHINGTON -- NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite failed to reach orbit after its 4:55 a.m. EST liftoff Tuesday from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base. 
    Preliminary indications are that the fairing on the Taurus XL launch vehicle failed to separate. The fairing is a clamshell structure that encapsulates the satellite as it travels through the atmosphere. 
    A Mishap Investigation Board will be immediately convened to determine the cause of the launch failure."
    The crash

    While there was a reported technical glitch during countdown prior to liftoff, the glitch is said to be unrelated to the crash. Following zero-stage ignition (booster rockets), the craft launched and attained its trajectory on a path to leave the Earth's atmosphere. By three minutes into the launch, NASA officials realized something was wrong.

    NASA's officials had instructed their computers to send the commands which would force the Taurus XL vehicle to shed its "clamshell structure housing the satellite." However, the Taurus XL vehicle did not act on the command. As a result of the extra weight, the craft failed to achieve orbit and instead returned to Earth, crashing in the ocean near Antarctica (South Pole). No one is reported hurt, and NASA records the incident as a total loss.

    NASA's OCO was built over nine years, costing $270 million. It was designed to conduct greenhouse gas studies in Earth's atmosphere. Part of its mission was an attempt to prove or disprove the relationship of atmospheric CO2 levels and other greenhouse gases, to temperature changes as observed once every 16 days (twice per month, roughly) at every location on the Earth for a period of two years.