Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes less than a minute into flight
WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, Va — On Tuesday, Oct. 28, Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital ) suffered the loss of one of the Dulles, Virginia-based firm’s Antares launch vehicles, along with the SS Deke Slayton, Cygnus, spacecraft at 6:22 p.m. EDT (1822 GMT). The anomaly happened within the first minute of flight, which left the launch pad covered in fire, smoke, and the rocket’s remnants. At the time of ignition, the launch team was not tracking any technical issues. It is unclear at present what impact this will have on the $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract that Orbital has with NASA, although NASA has confirmed that some reimbursement is built into the contract for Orbital and the on-board hardware.
Shortly after the incident, the Space Agency confirmed that no personnel has been injured and everyone was accounted for. The damage is limited to the launch pad and the facilities including property and vehicles. Orbital has stated that the damage was restricted to the south end of Wallops Island. Fire teams are in place to secure the perimeter of the crash, which is a little over 8500 feet.
Officials at a press conference held around three hours after the accident stated that the rocket went off-nominal around 10-12 seconds into the flight and that there appeared to be “disassembly of the first stage.”
NASA, Orbital, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) are working together to determine the cause of the problem and are collecting data. Orbital will take the lead in the upcoming investigation. They are currently working on contingency operations and the FAA operations center has been notified. The team is working to secure the pad as well as sensitive security materials that the Cygnus spacecraft was carrying at the time.
“It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” said Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group. “As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation’s space program.”
The video of the accident suggests that Pad-0A – is likely heavily damaged and will need large portions of it rebuilt. Pad-0A is the only launch facility currently certified to launch the Antares booster and it will be Orbital’s top priority to get the pad here on Wallops Island into working order as soon as possible.
Despite this accident, it is not expected to impact tomorrow’s early-morning launch of a Russian Progress spacecraft – which is also bound for the International Space Station (ISS). At present, it is unclear, what if any, impact it will have on the planned launch of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket with its payload of the GPS IIF8 navigational satellite. That flight is slated to liftoff at 1:21 p.m. EDT (1721 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida.
For their part, Orbital representatives stated that accidents such as this are part of the business of spaceflight.
Culbertson stated that it is unclear at this time how long it will be before Antares is returned to flight, but emphasized that it will absolutely not fly until the cause of the incident is determined.
At present, it is not known if either of Antares’ AJ-26 engines might be the cause of the accident. In May of this year, an Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 rocket engine, produced by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau, failed on a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Aerojet Rocketdyne purchased more than forty of the NK-33 engines in the 1990′s and Orbital has purchased 20 of those engines for use on Antares. Aerojet Rocketdyne has upgraded the engines by adding, among other items, electronics and a gimbaling / steering capability. it was also recently reported that Orbital is seeking other engines for use on Antares.
NASA has stated that the loss of the Cygnus cargo vessel should not affect operations on the station as the orbiting laboratory is, at present, well stocked with supplies – with enough on orbit to last the Expedition 41 crew until March of next year if necessary. The next United States resupply flight to the station – will be the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket with its Dragon spacecraft – that launch is currently slated to occur no-earlier-than Dec. 9.
Due to tonight’s anomaly, there may be a few items exchanged on Dragon’s current payload manifest, including a oxygen tank that may be switched for a nitrogen tank similar to the one Cygnus was carrying.
Video courtesy of JD Taylor / SpaceFlight Insider
Culbertson stressed that anyone coming across debris from the rocket – should not touch it and contact local authorities so that it can be collected.
“Launch is a really tough business,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, William Gerstenmaier. ” Tonight’s events show the difficulty in sending cargo to the International Space Station.”
NASA’s Michael Suffredini noted that the fact there is more than one contributor on NASA’s CRS program – is a strength – as it means that when a mishap such as this takes place, the Space Agency can turn to a different, non-related, set of launch vehicles and spacecraft.
It is estimated that Orbital and the incident team will need at least a few weeks in order to thoroughly evaluate the situation and to work on a plan for what is to come. At day break tomorrow, teams from the Accident Investigation Board will be sent off to locate and tag any debris and to further assess the extent of the damage. The next step is to study the video footage as well as telemetry data, which are currently in lock down.
Video courtesy of NASA TV
Anyone who finds possible debris should call the Incident Response Team at: 757-824-1295
Britt Rawcliffe is a professional freelance aerospace and aviation photographer based out of Pennsylvania with over six years of professional photographic experience. Her creative imagery has spanned into all areas relating to space, including launches, photojournalism, architecture, and portraiture. Britt’s passion for history has been a common thread in much of her work, including having photographed many Moonwalkers such as Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan.