The story of the Taurus XL rocket — which launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base early Friday morning, failed to reach orbit and then crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean — can perhaps be best told from this morning’s tweets.
#Glory LIFTOFF! Glory is bound for space atop a roaring Taurus XL rocket!
#Glory Stage 0 burnout and separation has occurred.
#Glory 2 minutes into the mission – all systems are nominal!
#Glory Stage 1 burnout and separation. Stage 2 is now burning.
But then, suddenly, this:
#Glory We have had a contingency. No indication of fairing separation.
#Glory The Taurus continues to fly, but we have received confirmation that the fairing did not separate.
#Glory The Taurus does not have sufficient velocity to achieve orbit.
Here’s what happened. A clamshell-like shield called the fairing is designed to protect the spacecraft from atmospheric pressure and heat during launch, and then split open and fall away once it has reached the outer edge of the earth’s atmosphere. When working correctly, the fairing jettisons from the rocket, shedding weight and exposing the payload, after which the satellite is pushed gently away from the launch vehicle and toward orbit.
That never happened. Instead it continued to cling to the nose of the rocket, and the burden of weight prevented Taurus XL from achieving the necessary velocity to move into orbit.
Two years ago, the same kind of rocket met the same fate while attempting to launch a satellite to study carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “That’s what’s disturbing about this launch failure,” said NASA spokesperson Steve Cole. “It’s the same rocket, the same general problem, so there’s a lot of concern about that.”
Hal Maring, program scientist for the mission, said he’s been preparing for this launch for more than eight years now.
“The name of the mission is glory,” he said, then corrected himself. “Was glory, sorry. I had to make that transition in about three seconds.”
The purpose of the $424 million Glory mission, he explained, was to observe the earth’s climate by collecting highly calibrated measurements of energy output from the sun, along with atmospheric particles in the earth called aerosols, using two different instruments. “We’re able to estimate relatively accurately warming due to greenhouse gases,” Maring said. “But if you look at warming and cooling effects caused by aerosols, they’re comparably large, and the aerosol effect on climate forcing is the most uncertain part in our understanding of climate change.”
NASA has created a Mishap Investigation Board to evaluate the cause of the failure.
During a news conference following the launch, scientists said the team had spent the last two years analyzing what went wrong with NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory, and that included extensively investigating, testing and redesigning the system’s components. They went into this flight confident, and came out devastated, said Ron Grabe, executive vice president and general manager of the Orbital’s Launch Systems Group, which made the rocket and satellite.
“Let me just say that there’s a great deal of emotional investment on the part of all these players on any space flight, but that’s probably doubly so on a return-to-flight effort like this one,” he said.