Setback for 'Mission Earth': Nasa's shuttle failure has compromised a crucial project to investigate ecological threats, reports Susan Watts, Technology Correspondent

NASA'S shuttle near-miss yesterday was an uncomfortable reminder of the Challenger disaster in 1986, when the vehicle exploded 72 seconds after lift-off, killing its crew of seven.

The six astronauts on board Endeavour had to sit for an hour on the launch pad, before blinking in the light they had not expected to see for another 10 days. This is the latest in a series of embarrassments for Nasa, at a time when it faces budgetary cuts and its workforce is threatened with far- reaching redundancy. The public, too, is becoming increasingly frustrated at the cost of Nasa's ambitious projects.

The failure will be particularly galling for Nasa, since the mission was part of the agency's attempt to win back its detractors. The flight was part of its 'Mission to Planet Earth', a long-term project to determine how natural systems work and what is needed to reverse potentially dangerous trends, such as the depletion of Earth's protective ozone layer.

The mission involved 49 scientists from 13 nations, including the UK. From its privileged vantage point 140 miles above the surface of the Earth, a camera the size of a bus was to take some of the most eye-catching snapshots the world has seen.

The camera, nestling in Endeavour's payload, was designed to bounce radar beams to Earth and back, catching reflected beams carrying an imprint of features of the planet that are usually hidden. Its beams can peer through clouds and deep into the oceans. Rock formations hidden by vegetation would have revealed themselves to its powerful eye, even after nightfall. The dollars 380m ( pounds 250m) camera, known as the Space Radar Laboratory, is the most powerful civilian radar flown in space.

The mission was the second of two flights, the first of which took place in April. The shuttle was to fly along exactly the same orbit as that taken in April, capturing shots of what Nasa calls the Spring and Summer Earth (at least in the northern hemisphere) so scientists could compare the two. Timing is crucial now. A protracted delay would devalue these comparisons.

There have been four previous last-minute engine failures on the shuttle launch pad, but these were all within a few seconds of launch time. They were all eventually established as sensor problems, with faulty sensors indicating that valves had not closed, when in fact they had.

Preliminary reports suggest that yesterday saw the first accurate sensor response. Two sensors separately gave readings of very high temperatures.

The turbo pump that failed was in one of the shuttle's three liquid engines. The turbo pumps sit one on each side of the system. They are among the most crucial components on board, and are usually changed after only two flights, but overhauled each time the shuttle flies. 'Every time an engineer maintains these, the risks are higher of someone making a mistake,' Steven Young, editor of Astronomy Now, said yesterday.

The pumps are designed to send super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen into the combustion chamber, acting like a fuel injector in a car engine.

The turbo pumps spin at 28,000 revolutions per minute. This creates the potentially explosive scenario of hot chunks of metal spinning in a liquid oxygen environment.

Nasa's best option now is to swap Endeavour's engines for a fresh set. This will take several weeks. If the set that is taken off has a generic fault, the agency's engineers will also have to ensure this is corrected in the new set.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
fashion David Beckham fronts adverts for his underwear collection
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
i100Most young people can't
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Service and Support (Financial Services, ITIL, ORC, TT)

£75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of Service and Support (Financial Ser...

Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, JAXB, ...

Service Delivery Manager - ITIL / ServiceNow / Derivatives

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading Financial Services orga...

Senior Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home