NASA: Technical Glitch Crashes $424M Glory Mission

A rocket carrying a satellite designed to help scientists study the Earth's climate suffered a technical failure and may have crashed into the southern Pacific Ocean.

Now NASA, which attempted to launch the rocket in the early hours of Friday morning, has convened an investigative committee to figure out what caused the failure of the $424 million Glory satellite mission.

Designed to improve NASA's understanding of the Earth's climate system, Glory was expected to stay in orbit for three years, sending a deluge of data about the sun and tiny atmospheric particles back to scientists. However, disaster struck the satellite and the rocket it was riding on just minutes after launch.

Liftoff was on time at 5:09 a.m. EST today from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. All was working as it should have until about three minutes after liftoff when the fairing did not release during the second stage of the engine burn, according to NASA. The fairing is a protective shell on the satellite's Taurus XL rocket designed to protect the payload. When the fairing is released as planned, there is a major boost in the spacecraft's acceleration.

When the fairing did not jettison this morning, the craft could not reach the velocity needed to achieve orbit.

It's not clear where in the South Pacific the satellite came crashing back to Earth.

Glory was originally scheduled to launch Feb. 23 but liftoff was postponed until Friday because of a problem with the rocket's ground support equipment.

NASA hasn't had the best of luck launching Earth science spacecraft.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory onboard a Taurus XL rocket launched on Feb. 24, 2009, but also failed to reach orbit when the fairing did not separate.

According to NASA, data from the Glory mission was expected to enable scientists to better understand how the sun and tiny atmospheric particles called aerosols affect Earth's climate.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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