NASA/Randy Beaudoin, VAFB
File photo: As the sun goes down over Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Orbital Sciences Taurus XL rocket and NASA's encapsulated Glory spacecraft awaits the next launch opportunity from Space Launch Complex 576-E. Feb. 22, 2011
A rocket carrying an Earth-observation satellite is in the Pacific Ocean after a failed launch attempt, NASA officials said Friday.
The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite lifted off around 2:10 a.m. PST from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
During a news conference Friday officials explained that a protective shell or fairing atop the rocket did not separate from the satellite as it should have 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 Friday that Glory likely wound up landing near where the previous satellite did.
"We failed to make orbit," NASA launch director Omar Baez said Friday. "Indications are that the satellite and rocket ... is in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."
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 to determine the sun's effect on climate change.
Glory was supposed to study tiny atmospheric particles known as aerosols, which reflect and trap sunlight. The vast majority occurs naturally, spewed into the atmosphere by volcanoes, forest fires and desert storms. Aerosols can also come from manmade sources such as the burning of fossil fuel.
The $424 million mission is managed by the NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
Friday's launch came after engineers spent more than a week troubleshooting a glitch that led to a last-minute scrub and two years studying what went wrong with the 2009 mission that also crashed.
An accident board was formed to investigate and corrective action was taken to prevent future problems. A duplicate is now scheduled to fly from Vandenberg in 2013.
Investigators spent several months testing hardware, interviewing engineers and reviewing data and documents. The probe did not find evidence of widespread testing negligence or management shortcomings, but NASA declined to release the full accident report, citing sensitive and proprietary information.
© 2011 The Associated Press.