OCO Press Conference Notes: Fairing Did Not Separate

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As Ian reported earlier this morning, NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite failed to reach orbit after its 4:55 a.m. EST liftoff Tuesday from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. At a press conference, officials said preliminary indications are that the fairing on the Taurus XL launch vehicle failed to separate about three minutes into the flight. The fairing, or nosecone, is a clamshell structure that covers the satellite as it travels through the atmosphere. “The fairing has considerable weight, and when it separates off you get a jump in acceleration,” said John Brunschwyler from Orbital Sciences Corporation, the rocket’s manufacturer. “We did not have that jump of acceleration and as a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit. And so, the initial indications are that the vehicle did not have enough Delta V to reach orbit, and landed just short of Antarctica in the ocean.”

Brunschwyler added, “Our whole team, at a very personal level, is disappointed in the events of this morning….Certainly for the science community it’s a huge disappointment. It’s taken so long to get here.”

Watch the launch video below:


A mishap investigation board has convened, and will endeavor to determine the cause of the failure. “We need to come to a most probably cause for this failure,” said NASA’s Expendable Launch Vehicle launch director Chuck Dovale. “Our goal will be to find a root cause, and we won’t fly the Glory mission until we have that data known to us.” Glory is the next Earth science mission, set to launch in June of 2009, and will collect data on aerosols and black carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere and climate system.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was intended to help target the key locations on our planet’s surface where CO2 is being emitted and absorbed. The project has been in the works for eight years.

NASA’s Expendable Launch Vehicle launch director Chuck Dovale said the countdown proceeded normally. “Stage zero ignition occurred at 1:55:31. All indications were nominal. The motor burned for 1 minute 24 seconds, then the first stage ignited. That proceeded normally, and burned 2 minutes and 43 seconds. Stage 1 separation occured five seconds later, and allowed second stage to ignite. At that point we expected to see fairing separate. We got indications that the sequence was sent, but shortly after that we started getting indication that the fairing did not separate.”

Brunschwyler explained how the fairing separates and what indications the team received about the anomaly.

“The fairing separates by a sequence of electrical pulses,” he said, “and the clamshell fairing is a two piece device that separates with four pulses from an electrical box, two primary pulses and two redundant pulses, which separate the longitudinal fairing rails, or the vertical part of the fairing. About 80 milliseconds later, the base joint is severed in a similar fashion. We have confirmation that correct sequence was sent. We had good power, and also healthy indications from electronics box that sent the signal. Three minutes into the flight, we had observed various pieces of telemetry, which we tried to correlate. When the fairing comes off, we have wires that break to give indication it has separated, but those indications did not change.”

There are also temperature sensors, but Brunschywler said the most significant data was no jump in acceleration from less weight if the fairing had properly separated.

“We constantly take altitude and velocity measurements. The vehicle didn’t fly over any land and all indications are it landed just short of Antarctica,” he said. “We’ll know a more accurate location tomorrow.” Brunschyler said since all the stages had burned, there shouldn’t be much, if any, hazardous hydrazine fuel left on board the rocket.

“OCO was an important mission to measure critical elements of the carbon cycle,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division. “Over the next several days, weeks and months we will carefully evaluate how to move forward and advance science, given our evaluations of the assets that are on orbit now, assets from our international partners and the existence of flight spares, in order to thoughtfully put together flight program, to as rapidly as possible to pick up where OCO left off and advance Earth systems science.”

15 Replies to “OCO Press Conference Notes: Fairing Did Not Separate”

  1. This was a silly boondoogle designed to force us to alter our lifestyles for something that doesn’t exist – climate change.

  2. Oh, the first conspiracy theorist arrived! Let’s see how long it takes for people claiming the mission was sabotaged by the coal industry lobby to come along. Fantasy land is such an exciting place.

    On a more serious note, I really feel with the scientists working on this mission. Working for 8 years just to see it crash into the ocean is certainly heart-breaking, they deserved better.

  3. Regarding himom:
    But how do you know?, Would it have been better to spend the allocated funds on yet another member of our next generation nuclear arsenal, which will either cause known significant real damage to our planet when launched or sit in a silo until it’s ready to be decomissioned. I’m not saying it’s the best use of our resources, but given the realistic alternatives for this money, I think this mission was very far from a “silly boondoogle”

  4. Anonymous, Nukes have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

    Why do people lose their intelligence when talking about global warming?

  5. While I feel for those who labored so hard on this the money is better spent sitting on the bottom of the ocean than cluttering space with BS like manmade global warming. If a mission was going to fail, thank goodness it was a useless mission like this, and not something of value. Good riddance….God how I wish I could vote for what missions would be carried out…. No doubt they’ll do another one… I wouldn’t mind if they stuffed Al Gore into it first….let him report from space.

  6. It’s too bad this mission failed. This would have given us an opportunity to study whether or not humans have a significant effect on the climate. I like how people are so sure of themselves that global warming is a myth. If it is a myth this mission would have helped proved that. I guess people need to feel exonerated for driving their SUV to their neighbor’s house 20 feet away. I bet the same people complaining about this mission also believe obesity is a disease. Now that one’s definitely a myth.

  7. While I cant disagree about shooting Al Gore into space, I think this would have been a decent mission. So far all we have is speculation and twisted facts. Lets get some science going.

  8. Just goes to show that spaceflight is still a risky business. It gets easy to forget that with all of the success that big-ticket missions have had lately. It’s a shame – this data would have helped us understand a significant component of our atmospheric system both now and in the distant past – Carbon sinks played a major role in converting our atmosphere from it’s early CO2 rich form to our present day conditions. Another piece of the puzzle will have to wait…

    And kcuhC & himom – clearly you’ve both never had anything to do with science in your lives. You make the assertion that climate change doesn’t exist (in himom’s case – ah, long term trends in climactic conditions, i.e. climate change, exist – check the data. Perhaps you refer to man-made climate change?) or in kcuhC’s case, that man made global warming doesn’t exist. What’s your irrefutable evidence that this is the case? Of course you don’t have a skeric of it, because you’re both fundamentalists, and fundamentalists don’t go in for such things as ‘evidence’, ’empirical data’ or ‘degrees of certainty’, ‘backing your claims’, ‘burden of proof’ or ‘Bayesian reasoning’.

    You may as well be creationists, not because you don’t believe in man-made global warming, but because you’ve made your mind up based on zero evidence and no amount of evidence to the contrary (assuming it exists) would change it. Maybe you are – it would hardly be a surprise.

    P.S – reply if you want – I simply couldn’t give less of a s__t what you have to say though…

  9. Must agree with Astrofiend. Rational people seek more data, however certain of their conclusions they might be. They don’t reject even the attempt to gain more (which might have *supported* himom’s viewpoint, who knows? But this way, no one wins).

  10. I also have to agree with Astrofriend launching rockets with any type payload is not routine!!! The more complex the mission, the more it can fail and it is unfortunate possible data is on hold until a another mission achives sucessful launch, separation and the payload works as planned.

  11. I have to say I am amazed that there were no failsafe systems for the fairing. It beggars belief that something as important as the removal of the fairing had no quite separate back up system to ensure the system fired. Surely even a simple clock with a time set to separately trigger the removal just ten seconds after the first would have been all that was needed. Instead of saving a few thousand dollars, they lost 200 million. Very bad design thinking. Everything important should be failsafe as a matter of course.

  12. Chris Coles,

    While I don’t know what they had in terms of redundant separators, the vehicles on board computer did transmit two sets of trigger pulses; one primary and one redundant. They’ve thought of it. As for separators, I don’t know what they have. Could be triple redundant for all I know.

  13. NEWSFLASH!: Global warming isn’t going away because this satellite failed.

    In fact we’re now even worse off.

    We know we have a fever, but we’ve just lost the scanner that could tell us where the infection was the worst, and where the immune system was protectecting us the best. Now we’re just blind and have to resort to bloodletting instead of being able to operate and use antibiotics.

    I fail to see why that’d make anyone happy.

    Also, I’m getting tired of seeing personal attacks on Gore. I think I’ll start ignoring you for resorting to ad hominems. If all you have to offer is your dislike for the senator, then you obviously don’t have much in the realm of data. (Surprise!)

  14. Hey, cool tips. I’ll buy a glass of beer to that man from that forum who told me to go to your site 🙂

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