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March 04, 2011

NASA Glory Satellite Fails to Orbit; Orbital Has a Problem

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Launched at 5:09 a.m. Eastern Time, NASA's Glory spacecraft failed to achieve orbit, crashing into the Pacific Ocean. Flight telemetry indicates the protective fairing covering the satellite did not separate as expected around three minutes after launch; the weight of the fairing effectively weighed down the satellite, preventing it from getting enough speed to reach orbit. 

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Glory was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on board an Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corporation Taurus XL. Also on board was a trio of three CubeSats hitching a ride to orbit as a part of NASA's Educational Nanosatellite program. 

Initially, all went as planned, with the four stage solid rocket successfully clearing the pad, and the first stage successfully separating.   However, telemetry appeared at three minutes into the flight indicated the aerodynamic fairing surrounding the Glory satellite didn't separate like it was supposed to six seconds after the first stage separation. At six minutes into the flight, NASA started working through its launch contingency -- i.e. "We have a problem" -- plan. Fifteen minutes and 35 seconds into the launch, a NASA spokesperson stated there was "insufficient velocity" for the vehicle to achieve orbit.  

The remains of the $424 million Glory and the trio of CubeSats are believed to be somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean. Glory was supposed to join the "A-Train" constellation of four French and American Earth observation satellites monitoring the atmosphere and surface. The satellite was designed to monitor atmosphere aerosols -- the different types of particles, shape, and how much sunlight they'd reflect -- and variations in solar activity by measuring the amount of radiation coming through the top of Earth's atmosphere.

Glory's initial launch date had been planned for Feb. 23, but problems with ground support gear lead to a series of postponements as engineers worked through isolating the problem.  

NASA has created a Glory Satellite Mishap Investigation Board and the proceedings won't be comfortably for either the agency or Orbital Sciences Corporation, the manufacturer of the Taurus XL. This is the second consecutive Earth observation satellite NASA has lost in due to a fairing separation failure on the Taurus XL. 

On February 24, 2009, the $270 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory also failed to reach orbit on a Taurus XL when the fairing did not separate. The review board poured over launch data and the fairing separation system design, developing a corrective action plan that was implemented by Orbital and blessed by NASA's Flight Planning Board in October 2010 for the launch of Glory.


Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf