General Dynamics Corp. ordered an investigation into why yet another unmanned Atlas rocket malfunctioned soon after liftoff, this time leaving a Navy communications satellite in a useless orbit.
Thursday's failure was the third in eight launches for the rocket maker.Officials Friday said the first-stage booster did not provide nearly enough thrust, and the upper-stage engines tried to compensate but could not. As a result, the satellite was left in an orbit nearly 5,000 miles lower than intended.
There is a chance on-board thrusters could boost the satellite and that the spacecraft could be of some use to the Navy, said Ron Swanson, general manager of satellite maker Hughes Space and Communications Co. But there isn't enough fuel to put the satellite exactly where it was supposed to be, preventing full use of the spacecraft, he said.
The satellite's 14-year life expectancy will be cut short if extra fuel is used to boost the spacecraft.
Swanson said the satellite is in a safe orbit for now.
"There is no reason to hurry the operations, to rush it, to try to do something at this time before we have fully considered all the potential options," he said.
General Dynamics last launched an Atlas in August 1992. That rocket tumbled out of control during liftoff and was blown up over the Atlantic Ocean. The same thing occurred in April 1991.
General Dynamics Space Systems Division, based in San Diego, concluded a stuck engine valve was responsible in both cases and added extra engine valves and ordered extra testing. Those valves worked fine Thursday, officials said.