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Rocket probably plunged into Pacific after failed launch, NASA says

NASA said a rocket component did not separate from the satellite, leaving the spacecraft without the velocity to reach orbit. NASA said a rocket component did not separate from the satellite, leaving the spacecraft without the velocity to reach orbit. (Bryan Walton/ Santa Maria Times via Associated Press)
Associated Press / March 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A rocket carrying an Earth-observation satellite is in the Pacific after a failed launch attempt, NASA officials said yesterday.

The Taurus XL rocket carrying the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Glory satellite lifted off around 2:10 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

During a news conference yesterday officials explained that a protective shell or fairing atop the rocket did not separate from the satellite about three minutes after the launch. That left the Glory spacecraft without the velocity to reach orbit.

NASA suffered a similar mishap two years ago when a satellite that would have studied global warming crashed into the ocean near Antarctica after launching from the same kind of rocket that carried Glory.

Officials said yesterday that Glory probably landed near where the previous satellite did. “Indications are that the satellite and rocket . . . is in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere,’’ said Omar Baez, NASA launch director.

Had Glory reached orbit, it would have been on a three-year mission to analyze how airborne particles affect Earth’s climate. Besides monitoring particles in the atmosphere, it would also have tracked solar radiation and its effect on climate change.

Glory was supposed to study tiny atmospheric particles known as aerosols, which reflect and trap sunlight. The vast majority occur naturally, spewed into the atmosphere by volcanoes, forest fires, and desert storms. Aerosols can also come from man-made sources such as the burning of fossil fuel.

The $424 million mission is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Yesterday’s launch occurred after engineers spent more than a week trouble-shooting a glitch that led to a last-minute scrub and two years studying what went wrong with the 2009 mission that also crashed.