An inglorious end for NASA's Glory satellite

When NASA's Glory satellite failed to reach orbit, it was a blow to US climate research. It's also raising questions about President Obama's new direction for the human-spaceflight program.

By , Staff writer

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    In this 59-second time exposure photo, the Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base early Friday, March 4. A protective shell atop the rocket did not separate from the satellite as it should have about three minutes after the launch. The rocket failed to reach orbit.
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The inglorious end on Friday to NASA's Glory, a satellite designed to provide critical information about Earth's climate, is widely seen as a temporary blow to US climate research.

However, it also could stiffen resistance in Congress to the Obama administration's new direction for the country's human-spaceflight program.

With the end of NASA's space-shuttle program only a few months away, the space agency will rely on rockets built and operated by private companies to carry cargo – and eventually crews – to and from the International Space Station.

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Orbital Sciences Corporation, which built the rocket that failed to deliver the satellite to orbit, is one of two companies NASA has tapped to deliver goods to the station via a contract worth $1.9 billion. And it's one of eight firms hoping to launch astronauts to the station as well.

Some lawmakers in key committees overseeing NASA, and from both sides of the aisle, have challenged the wisdom of such a move, arguing that NASA is putting the future of human spaceflight to low-Earth orbit in the hands of the untested.

For Orbital Sciences Corporation, the mishap Friday following an apparently successful launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California marks the second consecutive time in two years the company's Taurus XL rocket has failed to deliver a climate-research satellite to orbit.

In both cases, the failure has involved the same piece of hardware – a bullet-shaped, clamshell-like cover, or fairing, that protects the satellite during launch. Both Glory and its hapless predecessor, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory, ended up in the ocean.

Over that two-year period, the company has successfully launched 20 of its rockets, many of which share the same traits at the Taurus XL, company spokesman Barron Benski told Space.com.

"From time to time, a seemingly small thing can come up," he continued. "You think you've done everything humanly possible, and I know our team including the Orbital Taurus team, they scrubbed that rocket from stem to stern."

Some analysts suggest the company hasn't launched the vehicle often enough to squash all the bugs the system may have.

Losing two satellites in two Taurus XL launches is "not a great record," Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for the research firm Teal Group Corp told the Los Angeles Times. "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."

NASA and Orbital Sciences have set up a team to investigate the failure.

The $424 million Glory satellite was designed to measure the effect tiny particles called aerosols have on Earth's climate.

Scientists have a broad-brush handle on the effects these particles, from natural and human sources, have on climate. But the effects are so poorly measured that the uncertainties associated with estimates of the effects are virtually as large as the effects themselves. Nor is it clear how much of the atmosphere's aerosol content is human-made or comes from natural sources – from volcanic eruptions to algae in the world's oceans.

To help fill the measurement gap, Glory aimed to provide worldwide measurements of the distribution of the sizes, composition, and behavior of these particles at different altitudes and in different regions. It also would have taken the measure of black-carbon soot, a fairly recent addition to the factors that can alter climate.

The satellite's loss also comes at a time when NASA's climate-related missions – many already long in the tooth – have come under increasing criticism from congressional Republicans skeptical that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and from land-use changes are doing anything to influence climate.

Some lawmakers have suggested that the $1.8 billion in NASA's FY 2011 budget for earth science, which includes climate-related research, would be better spend on human spaceflight or eliminated as a deficit-cutting measure.

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