Orbiting Carbon Observatory's satellite
© NASA/Robert Hargreaves Jr/VAFBThe Orbiting Carbon Observatory's protective fairing - shown here as it was about to be fitted to the spacecraft at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California - failed to separate a few minutes after lift-off. That prevented the satellite from reaching orbit and caused it to crash into the ocean.

NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory crashed into the Pacific just off the coast of Antarctica shortly after it lifted off from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on Tuesday.

Just minutes after the OCO launched at 0155 PST (0955 GMT) on a Taurus XL rocket, its protective fairing, which shields the spacecraft during launch and atmospheric ascent, failed to separate and fall away as planned. As a result of its added weight, the satellite did not reach its orbit and crashed into the ocean.

NASA says a mishap investigation board will look into the cause of the failure.

The OCO was intended to be the first satellite to monitor precisely where and when carbon dioxide is being emitted and where and when it is being absorbed.

Humans currently emit 8.5 billion tonnes of carbon each year, mostly as carbon dioxide. But not all of that ends up in the atmosphere.

In fact, of all the carbon emitted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, just 40% has accumulated above our heads and built up the greenhouse effect.

The remaining 60% has been absorbed by carbon 'sinks' - natural reservoirs on land and at sea where carbon is stored away as organic material, like trees and plankton. Half of that 60% has ended up in the world's oceans, but the other 30% is still missing, presumably stored away in a land sink. The satellite was intended to help track the sources and sinks of CO2.