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NASA used Orbital Sciences’ Taurus XL rocket for the failed launch of its Glory climate satellite in 2011, even though the agency knew the company had not fixed the problem that caused the loss of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009.
The investigators believed there was as much as a 50% chance the faulty component — a fairing separation system for ejecting the protective shroud that covered the satellite during launch — would fail again. Sadly, it did, destroying Glory. More significant for the future, however is this:
Other Orbital vehicles, including the air-launched Pegasus and a new Antares rocket, use a version of the same fairing separation system that is most likely responsible for the combined $700 million loss of two key climate-study satellites. Orbital’s original name for Antares was Taurus II.
So far, NASA has not accepted the Antares shroud-separation configuration for operational flights. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital says it has made a number of changes to its frangible joint fairing separation system in the wake of the Glory launch failure, including modifications to the frangible rail used on Antares. The company is developing that rocket under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to carry cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).
If NASA isn’t satisfied with Orbital’s design changes to this system, it could significantly delay the launch of Cygnus and Antares to ISS.
Update: I had mistakenly referred to the Taurus 2 in the first sentence when the rocket used to launch Glory and OCO was the Taurus XL. This is now corrected.