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Scientists racing to save spinning satellite

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LOS ANGELES -- Ground controllers were racing against time to save a newly launched, $49 million NASA satellite that was spinning out of control after being launched into orbit.

The mishap is apparently due to the thruster-like action of hydrogen gas venting from a system needed to keep the satellite's telescope extremely cold.The Wide-Field Infrared Explorer, or Wire, was spinning Friday at the rate of once per second. Unless engineers gain control, all the hydrogen could be lost, said Don Savage, a spokesman at National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Washington.

"It's a race with the clock to turn this and hopefully cool down the spacecraft before all the hydrogen is vented," he said.

Wire carries a 12.5-inch Cassegrain telescope with infrared detectors.

The 561-pound satellite is the fifth mission under NASA's Small Explorer program. The launch cost $18 million.

The NASA satellite carrying a cryogenically cooled, Utah-built telescope designed to shed light on the history of star formation in the universe was launched over the Pacific Ocean.

The 4-foot-long telescope was built by Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory, where about 80 employees and relatives cheered and applauded as they watched a broadcast of the successful launch, as viewed by cameras on the L-1011's belly and on a chase plane.

"It got off and we're happy about that," said Allan Steed, president of Space Dynamics Laboratory. "We've been working on it for five years. It's hard to believe it's finally in the sky."

The launch was visible from Vandenberg and was "absolutely stunning," USU's Wire telescope manager Harry Ames said from the control room at Vandenberg. "Absolutely spectacular."

The three-stage Pegasus, loaded with the satellite, was carried aloft by rocket-builder Orbital Sciences Corp.'s L-1011 jet and released at an altitude of about 40,000 feet.

The Wire spacecraft was to be inserted into an orbit 340 miles high, circling the Earth every 90 minutes.

The spacecraft, part of NASA's Origins Program, will be controlled from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., with data going to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

NASA designed the four-month mission to help scientists understand how and when galaxies formed and the subsequent history of star formation in the universe.

Harley Thronson, acting director of the Astronomical Search for Origins at NASA, said in a statement that Wire was to provide "a wealth of information, which will get us closer to understanding how the universe could reach the point of forming Sun-like stars and Earth-like planets."

Wire principal investigator Perry Hacking, a Salt Lake County native and University of Utah graduate working at the California school, said the mission's science team hopes to measure how densely filled the universe has been with star-forming galaxies during its history and how quickly those galaxies have been forming stars.

"Wire also will conduct a search for powerful, dusty quasars in the very early universe, shortly after the Big Bang. If found in significant numbers, these quasars will carry strong implications about the age and structure of our universe," Hacking said in a statement.

NASA said Wire's science instrument is a 12.5-inch aperture telescope with no moving parts and a field of view about the size of the full moon.

The telescope is enclosed within a cooling system designed to keep the instrument's mirrors cooled to below minus-436 degrees Fahrenheit so that its own heat emission doesn't overwhelm the light that it is trying to detect from space.