The $278 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory blasted off aboard an unmanned Taurus rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 4:55 a.m. EST (0955 GMT), headed for an orbital perch about 400 miles above the poles.
The 986-pound (447-kg) spacecraft was tucked inside a clamshell-like shroud to protect it during the ride into space. But three minutes into the flight, the cover failed to separate as expected, dooming the mission.
“As a direct result of carrying that extra weight we could not make orbit,” said John Brunschwyler, the Taurus program manager with manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corp.
The spacecraft, also built by Orbital Sciences, fell back to Earth, splashing down into the southern Pacific Ocean near Antarctica.
The mission was NASA’s first aboard a Taurus rocket, which debuted in 1994 and has had six successful flights and one failure.
Scientists were counting on the new satellite to hone in on how carbon dioxide, suspected of being a trigger of global climate change, is cycling through the planet.
“For the science community it’s a huge disappointment,” NASA launch director Chuck Dovale said.