Grieving Glory — And Will The Taurus XL Fly Again?

by Anne Minard on March 11, 2011

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Orbital Sciences Taurus rocket. Credit: NASA

Last week’s loss of the $420 million Glory satellite has sent NASA into an intensive investigation to find out why two climate change missions in a row — flying aboard the same type of rocket — crashed due to what apparently was a similar technical glitch. Orbital Sciences out of Dulles, Va. is the company that designed the Taurus XL rocket that hosted both Glory and the Orbiting Carbon Satellite that crashed in 2009. They insisted last week that they’ll bounce back with the Taurus. But they may not be bouncing back on a NASA mission. Joy Bretthauer, NASA’s Glory program executive, acknowledged that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2, which will launch in 2013, is contracted to fly on none other than a Taurus XL. That may not stand, she said: “The bottom line is NASA will not fly in a launch vehicle that we do not have confidence in.”

Meanwhile, scores of researchers who poured their hearts into the mission are working to cope with the loss. Greg Kopp, the Boulder, Colorado-based principal investigator on the Total Irradiance Monitor that was supposed to fly aboard Glory, gave a thorough debriefing about his experience for the radio program Colorado Matters, on Colorado Public Radio out of Denver. It airs today.

Rich Straka, deputy general manager for operations for the Orbital Sciences launch systems group,  said during a NASA press briefing that the problem with both launches had to do with a protective covering called a clamshell fairing, held onto the vehicle with frangible, or breakable, joints meant to explosively fracture when commanded to do so.

“The fairing is then in two halves and there are piston pushers that push the fairing off,” Straka explained.

But in neither launch — the OCO in 2009 or Glory last week — did the fairing come off the rocket. In both cases, it stayed put and weighed the satellite down, preventing its flight toward orbit.

“We went into this flight confident that we had nailed the fairing issue,” said Ron Grabe, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital Sciences’ launch systems group. “We went so far as to completely change out the initiation system to a system that we use on one of our other vehicles, and in the intervening years that system flew successfully three times.”

Specifically, the company had previously used a hot gas system to drive the pistons that would push the fairing halves apart. But they traced the OCO launch loss to an initiation failure in the hot gas system. Orbital Sciences redesigned the Taurus XL rocket to use a cold gas system, starting with a pressurized bottle of nitrogen, just like the one in use on their Minotaur rocket.

NASA’s Bretthauer said she and others in the agency are heavy-hearted, but also baffled that their review of the OCO failure didn’t rule out the same mishap for Glory.

“We really thought we had it right,” she said. “We obviously never would have launched if we had not strongly believed the OCO failure had been mitigated.”

Kopp, a solar physicist at CU Bouder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), said Bretthauer herself has asked a key question during early meetings to investigate the Glory failure: If a thorough investigation by both NASA and Orbital Sciences missed a key problem, how can we trust the process the second time around?

Meanwhile, Kopp and others are regrouping to see how much of Glory’s science can be salvaged. His instrument, the TIM, was supposed to continue an ongoing measure of the sun’s energy reaching Earth, to try to better understand the sun’s role in climate change. For now, older instruments like SORCE are carrying the torch. And it’s possible that development of missions currently in the pipeline — like the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), a collaboration between NASA and NOAA – might be sped up to fill in the gaps.

More information: See also NASA’s Glory and OCO pages, a previous story about the Glory mission, and two stories about the OCO crash in 2009, here and here. This story is cross-posted at anneminard.com.

Torbjorn Larsson OM March 11, 2011 at 11:57 AM

After the fact, I’m glad the right questions is on the table. NASA is a governmental colossus, but that massive (resistant to change) size means it can also be diversified if challenged.

postman1 March 11, 2011 at 2:05 PM

I personally feel NASA should not be funding, even partially, a NOAA project. They need to concentrate on Exploration with what limited funds they have. $424 million would have gone a long way toward Mars or Europa. Private enterprise should be used for NOAA launches, it would be good for business (more jobs) and give them more experience using their launch systems.

Torbjorn Larsson OM March 12, 2011 at 12:57 AM

Wasn’t this on the table the other day? Climate is global research, which ties into exoplanet research, which ties into exploration; and vice versa. It makes very much sense (at least to me) that NASA is in on this, being experts on both ends, space technology and space exploits.

What I’m less enthusiastic about is their heavy involvement in the launches, which as you say may involve external business and be better for it. This time around they contracted just that AFAIU, but seems to have been less than protective of their (the taxpayers) investment by humoring a failure by repeating it.

Feenixx March 12, 2011 at 2:23 AM

postman1, I support exactly the opposite of your views: put the funding for going to Mars and Europa into Climate research (and also into working out effective ways to harness geothermal and wave energy). If it’s really a worthwhile thing to do, private enterprise will find a way to go to those places – however, I suspect “the bosses” might see it as pretty pointless, no benefits to be gained, a huge waste of funds…

The loss of these two missions, to me, is the most significant and consequential loss NASA has suffered in this century.

delphinus100 March 12, 2011 at 8:02 PM

Geothermal and wave energy belongs in the DOE, and DOE’s budget, not NASA…

(As opposed to fusion, which has potential space applications…and then only to that specific end. Not, say, commercial fusion reactors.)

HeadAroundU March 11, 2011 at 2:41 PM

glory glory alleluia :D

hal9000 March 11, 2011 at 3:29 PM

Use a Soyuz rocket next time ;)

AndyInv March 12, 2011 at 7:19 AM

Wonder how long it’ll take the conspiracy theorists to crawl out from underneath their stones……

postman1 March 12, 2011 at 9:54 AM

They are already all over this. See space.com.

RUF March 12, 2011 at 11:36 AM

Good riddence — it is just another token mission to try and prove to the Greenie, hippie, enviromentalist wakos that NASA is relevent to them.

Fortunately, most here know NASA is relevent without such political missions.

Keep puttin’ such missions on Taurus’s….

TerryG March 12, 2011 at 1:33 PM

Not without double or triple redundant systems. That rocket obviously needs work.

Torbjorn Larsson OM March 13, 2011 at 3:28 AM

As I noted above, this is climate research in general, which is useful in astronomy today, starting to model exoplanet temperatures and atmospheres et et cetera.

Moreover, Glory and OCO especially is vital for understanding climate modeling as it pertains to AGW, Glory would have monitored aerosols and solar irradiance which are the dominant uncertainty factors at this time.

This has nothing to do with environmentalism but with what climate scientists in general has accepted as the now dominant mechanism of change on top of the dominant GW mechanism that controls climate. Environmentalism is a social movement, climate science is a, well, science.

Astrofiend March 14, 2011 at 4:01 AM

At half a billion dollars, it is hardly a token mission. And I would have thought climate change deniers would be moist for this mission – solar irradiance is one of the few significant remaining uncertainties in models and one of their stock explanations for how scientists can have ‘got it all wrong’. If they really did have confidence in their idea, they’d freaking to get the data to prove their point.

Says it all really.

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