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NASA's $400 Million Glory Satellite Lost in Pacific Ocean

  • An illustration of the Glory satellite in orbit over the Earth.NASA

  • A Taurus XL rocket blasted off carrying NASA's Glory satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base early Friday March 4, 2011.AP Photo/Bryan Walton - Santa Maria Times

There was no glory for NASA's Glory satellite today. 

A rocket that blasted off early Friday carrying the $424 million Earth-observation satellite Glory failed to reach orbit, NASA said, and has most likely crashed into the ocean. In a press conference Friday morning, Omar Baez, NASA launch director, voiced the space agency's worries about the fate of Glory.

"All indications are that the satellite and rocket are in the southern Pacific Ocean," Baez said.

Rich Straka of Orbital Sciences Corp., the private company responsible for the satellite and launch, had few details to add. 

"Right now we're crunching the data, but there really isn't enough data to say anything more than the fairing didn't separate," Straka said.

Ron Grabe, executive vice president with the company, described it as a "tough night for all of us." The teams involved are devastated, Grabe said, comparing this latest loss to a similar incident in 2009, when NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) mission also failed.

Unlike commercial rocket launches, NASA's efforts aren't insured -- and there is rarely a paid backup, a NASA spokesman said. For the space agency to continue with the mission, it will have to divert funds from another project or request additional funding. 

NASA told FoxNews.com that it was too early to say how it would recover from the loss of the mission and the two scientific instruments aboard the Glory satellite -- and too soon to say what will happen to the two dozen NASA staff members ready to work on operations & science for the mission.

The 2009 failed satellite crashed into the ocean near Antarctica. Officials said Glory likely wound up landing in the same area. Both were on Orbital's Taurus rockets. The next NASA Earth sciences launch on a Taurus rocket is scheduled for 2013 but the space agency can still change launch vehicles if the Taurus proves unreliable, NASA Earth Science Director Mike Freilich told The Associated Press.

"I don't know if that's necessary or not," Freilich said. "We're not going to fly on a vehicle in which we don't have confidence."  NASA paid Orbital about $54 million to launch Glory, according to Orbital spokesman Barron Beneski. The Taurus rocket has launched nine times, six of them successfully.

NASA and Orbital spent more than a year studying and trying to fix the problem that caused 2009's Orbiting Carbon Observatory to fail. The payload fairing -- a clamshell-shaped protective covering for the satellite -- did not open to release the satellite.

The same thing happened with Glory, officials said.

"We really went into the (Glory) flight feeling we had nailed the fairing issue," said Ronald Grabe, general manager of Orbital's launch systems division and a former space shuttle commander.

Glory was intended for a three-year mission to analyze how airborne particles affect Earth's climate. Besides monitoring particles in the atmosphere --known as aerosols, they reflect and trap sunlight -- it was meant to track solar radiation to determine the sun's effect on climate change.

The vast majority of aerosols occurs naturally, spewed into the atmosphere by volcanoes, forest fires and desert storms. Aerosols can also come from manmade sources such as the burning of fossil fuel.

The $424 million mission is managed by the NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Friday's launch came after engineers spent more than a week troubleshooting a glitch that led to a last-minute scrub.

The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite lifted off about 2:10 a.m. PST from Vandenberg Air Force Base, officials said. But NASA said in a brief statement that a protective shell or "fairing" atop the rocket did not separate from the satellite as it should have about three minutes after the launch.

That left the Glory spacecraft without the velocity to reach orbit, NASA launch commentator George Diller said.

"The flight was going well until the time of fairing separation," Diller said. "We did not have a successful fairing separation from the Taurus and there was insufficient velocity with the fairing still on for the vehicle to achieve orbit."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.