A NASA satellite designed to measure greenhouse gas emissions and pinpoint global warming dangers crashed yesterday after a protective covering failed to separate from the craft shortly after launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The loss of the $278 million satellite came as a severe blow to NASA's climate monitoring efforts, as well as the builder of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.
"Our whole team, at a very personal level, is disappointed," Orbital Science's John Brunschwyler said at a briefing just hours after the satellite plunged into the ocean near Antarctica.
Launch director Chuck Dovale said the failure was a reminder that "even when you do your best, you can still fail."
NASA and Orbital Sciences began an immediate investigation. Early indications pointed to a problem with the fairing, the clamshell device that shields the satellite during liftoff from the high heat caused by air friction.
The fairing is designed to fall away about three minutes into the flight, when the rocket reaches an altitude at which the air is too thin to harm the satellite. Evidence from telemetry received by ground operators suggests the fairing never separated. With the extra weight, the satellite could not reach orbit, the science team said.
The 966-pound satellite was supposed to be placed in an orbit 400 miles above Earth, where it was designed to spend two years measuring carbon dioxide emissions, the principal gas blamed in global warming.
Using a set of spectrometers, the satellite also aimed to identify the places where carbon is neutralized, or removed from the atmosphere by natural processes. These places, mainly forests and seas, are known as carbon sinks.
Despite convincing evidence that global warming is occurring, scientists are not certain how these carbon sinks work and whether it might be possible to use them more efficiently to combat warming.
Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for science, said it was too soon to say whether NASA will attempt to launch a duplicate of the OCO. Weiler noted that the stimulus package recently passed by Congress includes $400 million for Earth science, but he added, "We have to find out how many leftover spare parts there are, how much it would take to put it together. We were obviously planning for success, not failure. We have to regroup."
The Washington Post contributed to this article.