Updated @ 07:39am, November 6: Orbital Sciences has announced that last week’s Antares rocket explosion was most likely caused by a fault in one of the rocket’s two refurbished Russian AJ-26 rocket engines. Prior to the launch failure, Orbital already had a long-term plan to replace these engines by 2016 — and now, it is unlikely that any more Antares rockets will be flown until the engines are changed. In the meantime, Orbital Sciences will try to launch the Cygnus resupply craft with other commercial space launch systems (it was designed to be mated to other rockets, not just Antares).
Original story, October 29
Last night, an Antares rocket — CRS Orb-3 — exploded 14 seconds after launch. The Antares, developed by US company Orbital Sciences, was meant to carry around 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilos) of supplies to the International Space Station. No one was harmed by the explosion, though the launch site will have sustained significant damage. We don’t yet know the cause of the explosion, but I’m sure that Orbital Sciences’ decision to use ancient (but refurbished) Russian NK-33 rocket engines will come under a lot of scrutiny.
The six astronauts currently aboard the ISS will be fine; NASA says they have months of supplies — and anyway, Russia successfully launched its own Progress resupply craft last night, just a couple of hours after the Antares went kaboom.
At 18:22 local time last night, the Antares rocket launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. A few seconds after liftoff, there was a large explosion at the bottom of the rocket — the base of the first stage, where two AJ-26/NK-33 rocket engines reside. The rocket then fell back to earth and exploded with an almighty boom. The Antares rocket was carrying the Cygnus spacecraft, which was meant to ferry around 5,000 pounds of supplies to the Space Station. During a press conference shortly after the explosion, NASA said, “There was no cargo that was absolutely critical to us that was lost on that flight. The crew is in no danger.”
NASA has a complete cargo manifest for the Cygnus craft if you’re interested — but basically, it was mostly food, some non-critical equipment, some small satellites, and student experiments. Russia launched a Progress resupply spacecraft to the ISS last night, just after the Orbital Sciences failure, so there’s no risk of the six astronauts aboard the ISS starving to death or otherwise meeting an ungainly demise 260 miles up.
Why did the rocket explode?
At this point, we still have no idea what actually caused the Antares rocket to explode. This was the fifth launch of an Antares rocket, with the first four going off without a hitch. From the video, it certainly looks like something happened at the bottom of the rocket — a flare of some kind — before the explosion began. NASA says the flight safety officer hit the “detonate button” when they noticed something was up — but I’m not sure what this actually achieved (it looks like the rocket just fell back to earth and exploded). NASA and Orbital Sciences will now be analyzing all of the camera and telemetry feeds to try and create a timeline of what actually happened. We should have an answer within a few days.
The Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, just after liftoff [Image credit: CollectSpace]
The rocket exploded in mid-air, and then detonated again when it hit the ground (which is what you can see in the image at the top of the story)
For a space launch company like Orbital Sciences, having a rocket explode is just about the worst thing that can ever happen. Not only will it cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue as customers flee to other launch companies (such as SpaceX), but in this case it physically wiped hundreds of millions of dollars from the company’s stock valuation too (ORB stock dropped more than 15% following the explosion).
Even worse for Orbital Sciences is the fact that Antares was already being scrutinized due to construction of its first stage being outsourced to a Ukrainian company (Yuzhnoye SDO) — and, if that wasn’t bad enough, the first stage also uses Aerojet AJ-26 engines, which are actually refurbished 1960s-era NK-33 Russian rocket engines. In a 2012 interview, SpaceX’s Elon Musk had this to say about the Antares: “One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke.”
Earlier this year, an AJ-26 engine that would’ve been used in a future Antares launch failed a test firing. If an engine failure or fault in the first stage caused last night’s explosion, it would be very bad news for Orbital Sciences.
Featured image credit: CollectSpace