The 850-pound spacecraft was undergoing a test Tuesday to ensure it could withstand launch when a vibration table at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory applied 10 times more force than was intended.
"The building shook, as opposed to something that was just shaking the spacecraft," said Peter Harvey, project manager of the $75 million High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager mission. "Everybody knew something was wrong."
CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood reports the shaking cracked at least two of four solar panels on the satellite and tests were planned to find internal damage. Launch, which had been scheduled for July, will be pushed back at least to January.
A spokeswoman for the NASA laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said the spacecraft was shaken in a vibration test with 20 times the force of Earth's gravity (20 Gs) instead of 2 Gs as called for in the test requirements.
Vibration tests are used to make sure spacecraft can withstand the rigors of launch.
A formal accident investigation board will begin meeting later this week to determine what went wrong.
Designed to study solar flares with an X-ray spectrometer, the 850-pound HESSI satellite was scheduled for launch in July aboard an Orbital Science air-launched Pegasus rocket. The flight now will be delayed, assuming the damage caused in the vibration test can be repaired.
It's the latest embarrassment for the space agency and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which last year lost two high-profile missions to Mars.
The 850-pound HESSI probe is designed to explore the basic physics of particle acceleration and the energy release of solar flares from an orbit of 360 miles above Earth. It's not clear whether any of the scientific instruments were damaged.
HESSI's engineers were confident that the spacecraft can be saved, said Mark Hess, spokesman for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which is managing the mission.