Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) and NASA had a bad day late last week. A $424 million satellite named Glory, designed to monitor aerosols and solar irradiance that contribute to changes in climate, failed to be properly delivered to space, when the fairing of the company’s Taurus launch system failed to separate from the payload. The extra mass of the dangling nose cone meant that the propulsion system of the upper stage didn’t have enough oomph (to use the technical term) to get it into orbit, delivering it and its valuable payload instead to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica.Two shroud separation failures in a row - with a re-design of the shroud separation mechanism in between.
While launch systems have become more reliable over the years, launch failures still happen, and failure to separate critical parts at staging is one of the most common cause of them. Because the Taurus is a four-stage system, it has more opportunities to encounter this failure mode than most vehicles. What is very strange, however, is that this is the second such failure in a row for OSC.
Just a little over two years ago, on February 24th, 2009, a Taurus assigned to deliver the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) met exactly the same fate, and the two lost satellites are probably sitting on the ocean floor not far from each other.
That suggests a command system failure, rather than a mechanism failure. The mechanisms didn't get the signal to separate.
It’s worth pointing out that the Taurus doesn’t fly very much. There have only been four flight attempts in the past decade: three of them were failures, including the last two consecutive disasters already described. When you only do something every two and a half years on average, it’s easy to get things wrong from lack of practice. There’s an optimal “tempo” for launch operations. Try to do things too fast, or too slowly, and the odds of failure can go up dramatically (one of the many reasons why proposals to continue to fly the Shuttle, but at only a couple flights a year, are a bad idea).As one commenter wrote:
Taurus has a 25 percent chance of getting a payload into orbit. Its cost is $20 million in 1999 dollars (call it $30 million).And hindsight is 20/20.
The satellite cost $424 million, lets say the launched cost is half a billion.
If a launcher had been used like the Delta II that has had 75 consecutive successful launches (and costs $40-50 billion) the launched cost would be $520 billion and the satellite would be in orbit.
Using the Taurus is pennywise and pound foolish.
Meanwhile... 3/4 of a billion dollars of space hardware is now a very, very expensive artificial reef. But that's not the worst part of the story.
Both OCO and Glory were specifically designed to help resolve the controversial issue of the degree to which earth’s climate is changing and if so, the degree to which human actions are the cause. NASA has been one of the many agencies criticized in the wake of the Climaquiddick scandal of late 2009 for fudging data, such as throwing out results from Siberian temperature monitoring stations, and generally massaging things in a way that somehow always seemed to confirm the politically correct AGW theory.We need more data, we need better data. These birds were a good, in fact, a necessary investment. That they're not up there, giving the data, is a serious setback. It means that special interest groups can continue to allege that the cruddy data and fudged models support "their side", when the rest of us just want to know the truth.
These two satellites were designed to take human judgement out of the monitoring and modeling loop, to provide direct and unbiased global sensor data on things such as carbon levels, clouds, irradiation, and other factors that are crucial to understanding the planet’s climate and its variability.