U.S. Air Force
A Taurus XL rocket with NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory on board sits on the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The rocket blasted off early Tuesday morning but splashed into the ocean.
The loss of the $280 million mission came a month after Japan launched the world's first spacecraft to track global warming emissions. The failure dealt a blow to NASA, which had hoped to send up its own satellite to measure carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas behind human-caused global warming.
The crash came just after liftoff from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's central coast. A Taurus XL rocket carrying the Orbiting Carbon Observatory blasted off as scheduled shortly before 2 a.m.
Three minutes into the flight, the nose cone protecting the satellite failed to come off as designed, NASA officials said. The extra weight from the cover caused the rocket to dive back to Earth, splashing into the ocean near Antarctica.
"Certainly for the science community it's a huge disappointment," said John Brunschwyler, Taurus project manager for Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., which built the rocket and satellite. "It's taken so long to get here."
The 986-pound satellite was supposed to be placed into a polar orbit some 400 miles above the Earth's surface. The project was nine years in the making, and the mission was supposed to last two years.
The observatory was NASA's first satellite dedicated to monitoring carbon dioxide on a global scale. Measurements collected by the satellite were expected to improve climate models and help researchers determine where the greenhouse gas originates and how much is being absorbed by forests and oceans.
"Wow! Bad news this morning," said Scott Denning, an atmospheric science professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and a member of the team that planned to analyze data from the satellite. "We put years into getting ready for this."
Carbon dioxide is the leading greenhouse gas and its buildup helps trap heat from the sun, causing potentially dangerous warming of the planet. Scientists now depend on 282 land-based stations -- and scattered instrumented aircraft flights -- to monitor carbon dioxide at low altitudes.
Engineers will look at existing spacecraft parts to see if it makes sense to build another carbon observatory, said Mike Freilich, Earth science division director at NASA headquarters.
Graeme Stephens, another member of the Colorado State team, said researchers will ask NASA to try again.
A team of experts will investigate the loss of the satellite. It's the first failure of a launch with a Taurus rocket since 2001. That year, a NASA ozone monitoring satellite and a cargo of human ashes aboard a Taurus rocket fell into the Indian Ocean after veering off course during launch.
Orbital's Brunschwyler said the company has a "nearly perfect" launch record and has not had any previous problems with its clamshell nose cone design.
Tuesday's failure put on hold the summer launch of another NASA satellite Glory, which will measure soot and aerosols in the atmosphere, said launch manager Charles Dovale.
Carbon dioxide emissions rose 3 percent worldwide from 2006 to 2007, according to international science agencies.
Scientists lamented the loss of the global warming satellite.
The satellite would have helped scientists confirm whether there was a drop in worldwide emissions, Alan Robock of Rutgers University wrote in an e-mail.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington and P. Solomon Banda in Denver contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Carbon Orbiting Observatory: http://www.nasa.gov/mission--pages/oco/m...