NASA's carbon observatory launch fails

By Phil Plait | February 24, 2009 8:23 am
NASA Orbiting Carbon Observatory

I just heard that the launch of Orbiting Carbon Observatory — a NASA satellite designed to measures the sources, sinks, and amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere — failed today. They say that it looks like the fairing, the clamshell surrounding the satellite at the top of the rocket, on the Taurus XL rocket failed to separate. So it’s in orbit, but the satellite is still inside the fairing, rendering it useless. It never made orbit, and came down in the ocean near Antarctica.

NASA has organized a Mishap Investigation Board and they are looking into it. The rocket is built by Orbital Sciences. I’ll have more info as it develops.

[Update (10:00 Mountain time): As noted in the comments below, space.com is reporting that the satellite and fairing dropped into the ocean near Antarctica. I have not heard the official word from NASA yet, but if true then my statement above about the satellite reaching orbit is incorrect.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA
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Comments (47)

  1. Vernon Balbert

    If I were into conspiracy theories, I’d say it was a plot so that we wouldn’t be able to monitor the carbon so that we could keep polluting.

  2. Rawley

    I think this is a job for Captain Planet!

  3. Todd W.

    Mishap Investigation Board

    Wait…M.I.B.? It’s aliens!

  4. fos

    That’s ok, the global warming fanatics will just manufacture or skew the data anyway.

  5. Tony

    Is this something that can be fixed? Is is possible to send people up to remove the fairing, or is it simply too large to do that?

  6. Tig

    Space.com reporting satellite crashed into ocean near Antarctica.

    http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/090224-oco-launch-failure.html

  7. dp

    I read about this five minutes before you posted. Such sad news.

  8. Brian

    According to NASA, the observatory never reached orbit:
    “The spacecraft did not reach orbit and likely landed in the ocean near Antarctica, said John Brunschwyler, the program manager for the Taurus XL.”

  9. Hutch

    It didn’t make orbit.
    “The spacecraft did not reach orbit and likely landed in the ocean near Antarctica, said John Brunschwyler, the program manager for the Taurus XL.”

  10. Cheyenne

    Bummer. That sounds like a satellite that could have provided some very good and important data. Hopefully they can figure out what went wrong and launch an even better one.

  11. Timothy from Boulder

    When a fairing fails to separate, the launch vehicle’s thrust is invariably insufficient to raise the additional mass into orbit.

    I have firsthand experience from a similar fairing failure on a bird 10 years ago. It went burn, burn, burn, crackle, crackle, splash. Have some nice nice photos of it burning up that some amateur astronomers happened to catch.

  12. gss_000

    It was really important data. It’s disappointing that this was the first time NASA was using a Taurus rocket, too. I was hoping that because Orbital built the rocket and the satellite something like this was less likely to happen. This goes to show that rocket science is hard.

    If this was a commercial satellite operator, a company sometimes can just build a another satellite with the insurance money. I’m not sure what happens here. There were reports that Orbital was going to use this spacecraft bus as a template for other missions. It’d be cool if they could just whip out another one, but I think the spectrographs may not be easy to reproduce.

  13. T.E.L.

    If this sounds bad, consider the DISCOVR satellite, designed to directly measure the ratio of solar heat in/out of the atmosphere, built & paid for years ago, yet collecting dust in a warehouse.

  14. TheBlackCat

    No,no, Vernon, conspirators always have a sinister motive. It’s never just greed. In this case, as the posts above conclusively prove, not only were “they” trying to cover up the reality of global warming, the plan was to actively helping it along by making the satellite burn up and emit additional CO2 as it fell.

  15. Timothy from Boulder

    “There were reports that Orbital was going to use this spacecraft bus as a template for other missions. It’d be cool if they could just whip out another one, but I think the spectrographs may not be easy to reproduce.”

    Several companies have gone to the model of having a generic spacecraft bus (or line of spacecraft buses) so that designs can be reused and customized for identical and similar missions. “Whip one out,” though, is all relative. Having been in similar situation, where a second identical bird was underway at the time the first failed, it still took a year (compared with approximately 3-4 years if one were to start from scratch.)

  16. Matthew

    I saw part of the launch from Caltech campus this morning. At the time, to my untrained eyes, it looked fine. But now I feel sad to have actually witnessed the rocket failing.

    Does anyone know if a description of what I saw would be useful to the investigation board?

  17. Quiet Desperation

    If I were into conspiracy theories, I’d say it was a plot so that we wouldn’t be able to monitor the carbon so that we could keep polluting.

    That one actually works in the other direction as well: it’s a plot to stop AGW from being debunked. 😉

    The *real* truth is that it was a rocket attack on Antarctica by NASA. If that makes no sense to you, well, you just aren’t in the know.

    Is is possible to send people up to remove the fairing

    Err…

  18. gss_000

    @Timothy from Boulder

    Very true. In my mind that is wicked fast. Speaking about Boulder (and it’s cool you’re in one of the centers of the spacecraft building world), I really feel bad for the CU students who were working on this project and were going to have the opportunity to control it once it was in orbit.

    @Matthew

    I have no idea, but I’m guessing they have what you wrote covered. According to published reports in the press, what you saw was common. Everything looked fine to observers until the spacecraft was out of range. Did you happen to take video of it?

  19. Matthew

    @gss_ooo

    No, I didn’t take video. This was my first attempt at witnessing a Vandenberg launch, so I just stepped outside and looked up. I might try to film the next one May.

  20. madge

    I watched the launch and the press briefing afterwards. The Mission reps looked so gutted and who can blame them. All that work now at the bottom of the Ocean near the antarctic. (It never made orbit) Such a shame. At least we have the Japanese ( I think ) mission that launched a while back to look at the same carbon data.Instead of having two missions that can correlate and corroborate the data we will just have to rely on the one. Question is will nasa regroup and rebuild or move on to something else altogether.
    :(

  21. mangled badger

    The BBC got a bit ahead of themselves and posted an article about a successful launch.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7906391.stm

    now if I believed in conspiracies…

  22. I think Glenn Beck may have shot it down with the blood spurting from his eyes… Either that, or they didn’t mix enough Viagra into the fuel mixture…

    I have often wondered if these satellites are insured against this, or is this considered to high risk?

  23. Bill

    Disappointing. The data from this mission will be missed.

    And how long before the Moon Hoax folks jump all over this? See? How could we have gotten men to the moon when we can’t even get a small satellite into orbit?

  24. Timothy from Boulder

    “I have often wondered if these satellites are insured against this, or is this considered to high risk?”

    Commercial satellites frequently are underwritten, to protect the investments of the company who stands to lose income from a failure. The government does not (to my knowledge) spend money on outside underwriters, since the primary reason for the asset is information, not revenue.

  25. Ray

    So how much carbon did this failed launch release?

    And did NASA buy any carbon credits to offset it?

    I have purchased over a million carbon credits to cover my lifestyle. You can too at

    http://www.freecarbonoffsets.com/home.do;jsessionid=3980B8294247D93514ED37666FD4C91B

  26. Wayne

    I don’t know about this mission, but on the ones I’ve been involved with most of the instruments and other spacecraft components had spares built, so it’s sometimes possible to assemble all the spare parts into a clone of the spacecraft relatively quickly. Even so, a year is probably optimistic.

  27. Quiet Desperation

    I have purchased over a million carbon credits to cover my lifestyle.

    Very useful! We get into some interesting experiments here at the Desperation Compound and could use the offsets.

    Happen to know any place I can buy plutonium credits?

  28. Gary Ansorge

    Quiet D,,,:

    Plutonium credits, eh? Why, yes, I happen to have a few thousand such,,,only $10,ooo each,,,

    Now, speak clearly into the hidden microphone,,,

    (Dane? Jackie? (Friendly FBI agents) are you recording this???)

    Ummm, carbon, the stuff of life,,,unfortunately, it’s best when sequestered in live tissues rather than in the air.

    Hope NASA can wheedle another chunk of cash to try again. I expect the Obama administration understands the necessity of this project. MAybe someone has their collective ear???

    GAry 7

  29. “Plutonium credits” reminds me of Larry Niven’s proposal to make money radioactive to boost the economy by keeping currency circulating and avoiding hoarding. The FDIC would insure deposits up to 99% of critical mass, I suppose…

  30. I guess it decided it wanted to do ice core samples instead.

  31. QUASAR

    Very disappointing, isn’t it?

    [sad face]

  32. As I write this, Penguins are now considering their response to this brazen attack by NASA.

    Joyeux Pedes, spokesman for the Antarctic Brotherhood of Flightless Birds states that this action does not make “his feet very happy.”

  33. Eight minutes after the liftoff I got very excited that the most dangerous part of the launch is accomplished. However, just minutes later I learned the launch faring did not separate. I was a little hopeful in sending commands to the electronic switches may just work, but the weight of the faring left it short of proper velocity. About an hour later NASA website declared it failed to reach orbit. I was really sad (well, tears) and almost the same reaction was seen over the OCO team at the 6 AM Mountain time (8 AM EDT) OCO Anomaly Conference. It took over eight years of development and was a very crucial part of NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder.

  34. @Quiet Desperation:
    I think I need a million carbon credits just to cover that bean burrito I just ate

  35. BJN

    That’s a big loss for climate study. I can imagine that it’s a devastating day for the project’s science team. I hope that Washington provides funding to get this project in orbit – we need the data and climate study is the most important mission NASA can undertake.

  36. llewelly

    Quiet Desperation:

    The *real* truth is that it was a rocket attack on Antarctica by NASA. If that makes no sense to you, well, you just aren’t in the know.

    When I was in HS, one night at a D&D session, the father of one of the players showed up to drop off the player, and then stayed to BS about WWII for about an hour and a half. He explained to us that Hitler, Goering, and the rest weren’t really dead. Instead – they lit out to Antarctica at the last moment. That’s the real reason the US Navy sent a whole carrier fleet down to Antarctica. It wasn’t ‘training’ to prepare the USN to fight Soviets in the Arctic – and it wasn’t support for scientific exploration – it was the secret continuation of WWII. And those flying saucers and weird lights reported by so many? Those were Goering’s Luftwaffe, still spying on the US, right up to the present. At the time, we figured that character was unique. Years later I would learn there was whole community of kooks who believe the Third Reich continues to rule in Antarctica to this day.

  37. This is called an “IOBM”, Into the Ocean By Mistake.

    – Jack

  38. TheBlackCat
  39. Maybe we should have asked Iran to launch it for us.

  40. @IIewelly:
    I have some really, really bad news for you:

    http://www.ironsky.net/site/?p=16

  41. MadScientist

    @Vernon:

    It’s actually sabotage carried out by climate modelers; more measurements mean fewer opportunities to blame other people for the fact that the models always give the wrong results.

  42. MadScientist

    @ncc1701:

    Naah, the Russians are far more reliable. However, there are incredible bureaucratic hurdles (on the US side) to overcome just to be able to give the Russians a contract to provide even the simplest services. As a capitalist, I’m quite happy to pay the Russians to do the job – they do it cheaper and have a high success rate. Orbital Sciences is looking pretty bad with the Taurus – of 8 Taurus launches, this is the second to fail. The earlier Taurus failure was much more spectacular; the rocket did a “drunk man’s walk” through the sky – I was wondering if the range safety officer wasn’t drunk as well because the rocket was not destroyed.

  43. MadScientist

    Well, if everyone has their documentation in order a new OCO can be built in a fraction of the time it took to develop the original; still, you’re looking at 2-3 years work by hundreds of people and in the meantime there are all the science teams on the ground who have already planned costly campaigns to do ground truthing, calibration, analysis, and so on. The loss of a science satellite at launch is always a catastrophe. Remember all those blighted Mars missions? Poor ‘Beagle’ – I imagine Snoopy floating in space with Lenka (I know, I know, Lenka did come crashing down). I can recall quite a few losses though – ‘ADEOS1′ then “ADEOS2’ (hint: stop naming satellites ‘goodbye’ or at least spell it correctly with an ‘I’), various Mars missions, ‘QuickTOMS’. Given that the launch is the cheapest part of a mission, people need to ask the question: are they *really* saving any money going for the lowest bid?

  44. Quiet Desperation

    He explained to us that Hitler, Goering, and the rest weren’t really dead. Instead – they lit out to Antarctica at the last moment.

    Ha ha ha! How silly!

    Everyone knows they escaped to the Moon!

  45. fooproof

    Predicted by a newspaper columnist on sunday, says aamulehti (in finnish):
    http://www.aamulehti.fi/uutiset/ulkomaat/132207.shtml
    and people say there are no medios.

  46. fooproof

    by a medio meant a clairvoyant, one commenter suspected the columnist will get a visit from some intelligence agency, heh.

  47. DancingNancie

    I found this interesting video today that shows what different sources are saying on the incident

    http://www.newsy.com/videos/launch_fails_for_nasa/

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