NASA is launching an investigation into what caused a $424 million satellite, and a key climate research tool, to crash early Friday morning.
The mission was to be the first satellite launch under President Obama's climate initiative and was supposed to "advance the United States' contribution to cutting-edge and policy-relevant climate change science," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division, in January.
The rocket, carrying a 1,200-pound Glory satellite, was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California just after 5 a.m. EST. The malfunction apparently occurred during the second stage of the launch, when officials say a protective shell on top of the Taurus XL rocket did not separate. In 2009, a previous launch of the same kind of rocket also ended in disaster when the shell did not separate, and efforts to fix the problem were declared complete last October.
"We failed to make orbit," NASA launch director Omar Baez told reporters Friday. "Indications are that the satellite and rocket ... is in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."
The Glory satellite was designed to measure how small atmospheric particles called aerosols affect Earth's climate. Aerosols are "the airborne particles that can influence climate by reflecting and absorbing solar radiation and modifying clouds and precipitation," according to NASA. Scientists were planning on using the craft to gather data for at least three years.
Freilich said the influence of aerosols on the Earth's energy balance is one of the "major uncertainties" in predicting climate changes identified by the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The Taurus XL rocket was also scheduled to be carrying three "nanosatellites," or small research satellites, for several universities.
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