A rocket, standing more than nine stories tall, blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base but failed to lift a NASA Earth-observation satellite into orbit and plummeted into the Pacific Ocean. The failed mission cost $424 million, the space agency said.
It is the second consecutive time that NASA has encountered the problem with the Taurus XL rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.
NASA scientists believe the launch on Friday failed because the satellite's protective cover, which opens like a clamshell, did not separate as expected.
"Obviously, this is a terrific disappointment and we feel bad for letting NASA … down," said Barron Beneski, an Orbital Sciences spokesman. "People have dedicated years of their lives into this."
NASA's Glory satellite was designed to help scientists understand how the sun and particles of matter in the atmosphere called aerosols affect the Earth's climate. It was also built by Orbital in Virginia.
Everything seemed to go as planned from Vandenberg, located northwest of Santa Barbara, shortly after the 3:09 a.m. PST liftoff. Three minutes later, the cover was supposed to separate and the satellite was expected to enter orbit. That didn't happen.
"We failed to make orbit," Omar Baez, NASA's launch director, said at a news conference. "All indications are that the satellite and the rocket are in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."
It marks the second time in a row that NASA has encountered a problem with the protective shell separating from the satellite. The space agency's previous Taurus XL launch attempt on Feb. 24, 2009, carrying another Earth science spacecraft, dubbed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, also failed to reach orbit because of lack of separation.
Orbital Sciences and NASA investigated the matter and believed that they had identified the problem. On Friday, Orbital Sciences said it was too early to tell whether the latest failure was linked to the issue they previously encountered.
"Understandably, people are thinking this is the same problem all over again," Beneski said. "It's too early to tell. We have to evaluate all the data before we can say that's true."
Although the satellite probably will never be recovered, sensors on the spacecraft captured enough information for engineers to identify a problem, Beneski said.
Since 1994, Orbital Sciences has attempted to launch a Taurus XL rocket a total of nine times. It has been successful in six of those attempts.
"That's not a great record," said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for research firm Teal Group Corp. "Part of the problem is that the Taurus just doesn't launch enough. It's hard to develop a launch rhythm if the rocket is only going up once every few years."
Both Orbital Sciences and NASA plan to create investigation boards made up of engineers and scientists to evaluate the cause of Friday's failure.
NASA has another Earth sciences satellite slated to launch on a Taurus rocket in 2013. The space agency plans to wait and see the results of the investigation board before it goes forward with the launch.
Orbital Sciences shares lost 30 cents, or about 2%, on Friday, closing at $18.17.
Also Friday, the launch attempt of the U.S. Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle from Cape Canaveral, Fla., was scrubbed because of bad weather. The launch was rescheduled for Saturday at 1:09 p.m. PST.