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Workers prepare to enclose NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory, or OCO, inside a protective structure that fits flush with the outside surface of the rocket. ((NASA/Robert Hargreaves Jr., VAFB))

A piece of rocket hardware failed to separate during the launch of a NASA climate satellite earlier this year, causing it crash back to Earth, according to an accident summary released Friday.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory splashed into the ocean near Antarctica on Feb. 24, minutes after lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a Taurus rocket.

A team of space experts appointed by NASA to investigate the mishap said the nose cone that protects the satellite did not come off as planned. Although the investigators could not pinpoint the exact cause for the failed separation, they said four potential problems with the rocket's hardware may be to blame.

"The rocket did everything it could to reach orbit," said Rick Obenschain, deputy director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center who headed the probe.

But with the rocket carrying the extra weight, "it could not physically do it," he said.

Investigators spent several months testing hardware, interviewing engineers and reviewing data and documents. The probe did not find evidence of widespread testing negligence or management shortcomings, Obenschain said.

Loss of satellite a blow to climate science

NASA declined to release the full accident report, citing sensitive and proprietary information.

The loss of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory dealt a blow to NASA, which hoped to beef up its space-based network of environment satellites. The $278 million US mission managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was supposed to track global carbon dioxide emissions.

Barron Beneski, a spokesman for rocket maker Orbital Sciences Corp., said the company did not have any issues with NASA's report. Orbital headed its own internal investigation after the crash and "reached many of the same findings," he said.

Orbital is working with NASA to address the problems raised in the report before the launch of another NASA satellite, Glory, on the same kind of rocket next year. The mission to study solar radiation and airborne particles that reflect and trap sunlight was put on hold after the accident.