Rocket launch fails; satellite falls into sea

LOS ANGELES — A rocket standing more than nine stories tall blasted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base but failed to lift a NASA Earth-observation satellite into orbit and plummeted into the Pacific Ocean. The failed mission cost $424 million, the space agency said.

It is the second consecutive time that NASA has encountered the problem with the Taurus XL rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va.

NASA scientists believe the launch on Friday failed because the satellite's protective cover, which opens like a clamshell, did not separate as expected.

"Obviously, this is a terrific disappointment and we feel bad for letting NASA... down," said Barron Beneski, an Orbital Sciences spokesman. "People have dedicated years of their lives into this."

NASA's Glory satellite was designed to help scientists understand how the sun and particles of matter in the atmosphere called aerosols affect the Earth's climate. It was also built by Orbital in Virginia.

Everything seemed to go as planned from Vandenberg, located northwest of Santa Barbara, shortly after the 3:09 a.m. PST liftoff. Three minutes later, the cover was supposed to separate and the satellite was expected to enter orbit. That didn't happen.

"We failed to make orbit," Omar Baez, NASA's launch director, said at a news conference. "All indications are that the satellite and the rocket are in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."

It marks the second time in a row that NASA has encountered a problem with the protective shell separating from the satellite. The space agency's previous Taurus XL launch attempt on Feb. 24, 2009, carrying another Earth science spacecraft, dubbed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, also failed to reach orbit because of lack of separation.

Orbital Sciences and NASA investigated the matter and thought they had identified the problem. On Friday, Orbital Sciences said it was too early to tell whether the latest failure was linked to the issue they previously encountered.

Both Orbital Sciences and NASA plan to create investigation boards made up of engineers and scientists to evaluate the cause of Friday's failure.