An environmental satellite crashed into the southern Pacific Ocean early today after a protective nose cone fairing failed to separate from its rocket during launch.
Another environmental satellite failed to launch in 2009 due to a similar nose cone malfunction, making this US$424m failure the second in a row for the Orbital Sciences booster.
The Glory mission got under way at 2.09am PT at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, after having been delayed by glitches with ground support equipment since 23 February.
The first two stages of the four-stage launch took place normally, but then two minutes and 51 seconds after liftoff pistons fuelled by pressurised nitrogen were to separate the two halves of the clamshell nose cone fairing.
The additional weight of the nose prevented the rocket from continuing on its planned trajectory and a few moments later, NASA launch director Omar Baez declared a failure.
"It’s a very difficult situation we’re in here," Baez said during a news conference after the failed launch.
"We failed to make orbit and all indications are that the satellite and rocket (are) in the southern Pacific Ocean somewhere."