NASA Report Explains Satellite Launch Failure

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NASA this week released an eight-page report detailing all its engineers have learned about a failed satellite launch that took place on March 4, 2011.

The launch of a Taurus XL T9 rocket, designed by Orbital Science Corporation, was meant to carry the Glory climate change monitoring satellite into orbit. The rocket instead failed to reach orbit, costing the agency around $388 million.

A "mishap investigation board" put together by NASA in the aftermath of the failure determined that the rocket's fairing system failed to open fully, causing the destruction of the rocket and its payload.

Fairings are clamshell-shaped nosecone devices that surround satellites on their way to orbit. Normally, fairings are jettisoned soon after launch when friction heat from the Earth's atmosphere is no longer a concern. When Glory's fairing failed to open, the fairing's mass altered the rocket's trajectory. NASA states in its report that the launch vehicle "likely broke up or burned up, or both, because of reentry loads and aerodynamic heating."

Though the fairing was determined to be the cause of the failure, the NASA board was unable to figure out exactly why the fairing had not opened. The board, though, did narrow down the possibilities to some sort of failure with the frangible joint components of the fairing's side rail system. Both NASA and Orbital are continuing to investigate the fairing system, and will be making improvements to future designs based on their findings.

(Image courtesy NASA)

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