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NASA Scuttles Star Search

With a multimillion-dollar star research mission over before it started, NASA is left only with an out-of-control satellite and the resolve to figure out what went wrong.

The Wide-Field Infrared Explorer cannot conduct its science mission because all the frozen hydrogen needed to cool the satellite's telescope melted and vented into space, NASA said.

CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood reports that NASA's $54 million space telescope was launched at 9:57 p.m. ET Thursday by an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket flying off the coast of California.

Without the critical coolant, NASA officials say, the optical system of the 560-pound telescope, designed to study star and galaxy formation, cannot collect weak infrared light from deep-space targets.

It is not yet known exactly what went wrong. Engineers believe the telescope's main cover was jettisoned shortly after launch - three days earlier than planned - and that sunlight caused a container of hydrogen ice to heat up. The hydrogen then vented into space, putting the WIRE spacecraft into a spin.

The agency spent a fruitless weekend trying to regain control of the spinning spacecraft.

Ground controllers were slowly beginning to decrease the spin by using the satellite's magnetic attitude control system and hoped to have it stabilized by the end of the week.

NASA spent about $73 million on the satellite's development, launch and operations, spokesman Don Savage said. Had the mission gone forward, operations and data analysis costs would have put the total over $80 million.

Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space science at NASA headquarters, said he was disappointed but confident upcoming missions could accomplish some of the goals "so it will be science delayed rather than science lost."

The satellite, nicknamed Wire, was intended to study "starburst" galaxies, those in which rapid star formation is taking place. It was also going to study infant galaxies known as protogalaxies. Scientist had expected to detect at least 50,000 galaxies.