A NASA satellite designed to measure greenhouse gas emissions and pinpoint global warming dangers crashed Tuesday 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 an early-morning 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 faring, the clamshell device that shields the satellite during liftoff from the high heat caused by air friction.
The faring is designed to fall away about three minutes into the flight, when the rocket reaches an altitude where the air is too thin to harm the satellite.
Evidence from telemetry received by ground operators suggests the faring never separated. With the extra weight, the satellite could not reach orbit, the science team said.
The first sign that something was wrong came shortly after the 1:55 a.m. launch, when ground controllers noticed there was no jump in acceleration in the two-stage Taurus XL rocket that would have been expected when the heavy faring was shed.
The 966-pound satellite was to be placed in an orbit 400 miles above Earth to spend two years measuring carbon dioxide emissions, the principal gas blamed in global warming.
Using a set of spectrometers, the satellite was also to identify the places where carbon is neutralized, or removed from the atmosphere by natural processes. These places, mainly forests and the seas, are known as carbon sinks.
Despite convincing evidence 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 global warming.
Climate scientists were hoping the Orbiting Carbon Observatory could tell them whether current voluntary worldwide efforts to control carbon dioxide emissions were beginning to work.
Brunschwyler said that before Tuesday's failure, Orbital Sciences had 56 successful launches in 57 attempts.
Never before had they had a problem with a faring, he said.
The lone previous failure occurred in 2001, when an ozone-monitoring satellite and a cargo of human ashes plunged into the Indian Ocean after launch.
In January, Japan launched a satellite called GOSAT that will make many of the same measurements that the NASA satellite was designed to perform.
With Tuesday's failure, NASA managers said they would study the situation before deciding whether to build another carbon observatory.
"We are going to look at how best to advance" global warming research, said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth sciences division at NASA headquarters in Washington. Whether that would be a duplicate of the lost craft or something different, he did not say.
The Orbiting Carbon Observatory was managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. The Taurus XL rocket carried hydrazine fuel, a hazardous material. But launch officials said they believed the fuel was burned away during the launch.