Taurus Rocket Fairing Glitch Dooms NASA’s Glory Mission

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UPDATED at 1:13pm EDT

WASHINGTON — NASA’s $424 million Glory climate observation satellite was lost in a March 4 launch attempt from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., after the shroud designed to protect the spacecraft during its climb to orbit atop a Taurus XL rocket failed to separate, agency officials said.

The Taurus XL, built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., was making its return to flight two years after a similar fairing problem destroyed NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite. After replacing the fairing-separation mechanism thought to be the culprit in the OCO launch failure, the government-industry team believed the Glory launch had “an acceptable level of risk,” Rich Straka, Orbital’s deputy general manager for launch operations, said during a March 4 press conference at Vandenberg.

The Glory satellite, also built by Orbital, was designed to operate in polar orbit to monitor aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere and continue NASA’s uninterrupted 30-year history of observing solar energy output. It carried the Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor, built by Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., and the Total Irradiance Monitor, built by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

No issues arose during preparations for the launch, and the rocket lifted off from the launch pad successfully, Omar Baez, NASA’s Glory launch director, said during the press conference. The Taurus XL’s first- and second-stage motors burned properly, and the third stage ignited two minutes and 45 seconds into the flight. The clamshell-style payload fairing was supposed to jettison six seconds after third-stage ignition, but rocket performance data indicates that never happened, Baez said. Glory splashed down somewhere in the southern Pacific Ocean, he said.

“It’s a very difficult situation we’re in here,” Baez said.

After an extensive investigation of the OCO launch failure, a decision was made to replace the Taurus XL’s fairing-separation mechanism, a combustion system designed to create hot gas that pushes the pistons that eject the two halves of the nose cone, said Ron Grabe, the executive vice president and general manager for Orbital’s launch systems group. It was replaced by a system that uses a bottle of cold, pressurized nitrogen to drive the pistons, he said. The cold gas system was successfully used in all three launches of the Orbital-built Minotaur 4 rocket last year, he said.

“We really went into this flight confident that we had nailed the fairing issue,” Grabe said. “It’s not an understatement to say that tonight we’re all pretty devastated.”

Meanwhile, Orbital is building an OCO replacement for NASA and in June was awarded a $70 million contract to launch the satellite on a Taurus XL. Depending on the findings of Glory’s Mishap Investigation Board, the agency may have to change that plan, said Michael Luther, deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

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