Orbital Antares Rocket Explodes Shortly After Launch Shocking Onlookers

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Onlookers watch as Antares explodes.

The launch was proceeding as expected. Across the board, the Orbital team manning their stations had green lights. The weather was almost perfect. There was a sense of anticipation after seeing the launch scrubbed the day before because a boat had wandered into the range. No one could have foreseen what would happen next.

Mere seconds into the launch the unexpected happened. As the rocket was barely several hundred feet off the ground, and having just cleared the assorted launch pad towers, an explosion rocked the bottom of the rocket. The rocket continued on a for a few seconds before it quickly fell back to Earth as gravity reasserted itself. It exploded as it neared the ground creating a huge fireball sending debris flying like missiles in all directions. No one was hurt. Next came the shock.

It wasn't just the shock of what had just happened. It was the shock of the unexpected happening. It was obvious that Orbital mission control was in shock. It was obvious later that people who had gathered to watch the launch at a safe distance were in shock and some were scared. The intensity of the explosion, the light, the sound shockwave, took the spectators by surprise.

We know very little at this time as to what went wrong.

Nearly three hours after the rocket suffered a catastrophic anomaly NASA held a news conference. Here's what little we know.

Approximately 12 seconds into the launch there appeared to be a problem with the first stage of the Antares rocket. The first stage is powered by two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines. These engines are Soviet era NK-33 engines that have been refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and tested before being certified for flight.

Orbital Sciences Corporation which built the Antares rocket had previously successfully flown four times with these engines. There was no indication of an issue on those flights. However on May 22 of this year an AJ-26 engine undergoing a hot-fire test before being certified for launch, failed. The engine was scheduled for a 2015 mission. Both AJ-26 engines on this rocket had passed their hot-fire tests. It's too early to say if there was a problem with one of first stage engines.

In fact, it's too early to speculate on any cause as the accident area has been cordoned off for safety reasons and until first light on Wednesday no one will begin looking through the remains of the rocket.

Frank Culbertson, Executive Vice President of Orbital said Orbital is the lead for the investigation that will take place with support from NASA, the FAA and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. He went on to say that initially they will use a three-pronged approach including 1) get out to the launch pad at first light and tag and locate the hardware and debris, 2) to evaluate the telemetry and 3) evaluate the camera footage.

He also warned the public not to touch any material they find as it could be hazardous. The public should phone the Incident Response Team at 757-824-1295 if they find anything. Emergency responders are onsite and have established a perimeter around the crash site.

According to Culbertson, Orbital initiated the self-destruct command once it was clear there was a problem with the launch. In so doing the hope is that a controlled explosion would help contain the debris to a smaller area. It's unclear at this time when the actual command was executed though Culbertson thought it was initiated before it hit the ground. The debris appears to be contained to south end of Wallops Island around Pad 0A. The extend of damage to the pad is unknown at this time.

Pad 0A is the only one certified to launch the Antares rocket. While the investigation is ongoing repairs to be pad will be made, though it's not known how long that will take. Antares will not fly until they know the root cause of the problem and it is fixed.

Mike Suffredini, NASA's International Space Station Program Manager, said that none of the cargo lost was absolutely critical. The Space Station still has food for many months and other resupply missions are already scheduled including a Russian Progress cargo delivery on Wednesday and a SpaceX mission in early December.

Lost on the mission was almost 5000 pounds (2215 kg) of equipment including food, crew equipment, science experiments, space station hardware, spacewalk and computer equipment. Also lost were 26 small satellites owned by Planet Labs that were to be launched from the International Space Station as well as Planetary Resources first technology demonstrator Arkyd 3 small satellite.

While Orbital said they have some insurance it's unclear if Planet Labs or Planetary Resources do. Requests for comments from either company had not been answered by the time this article was published.

Also lost were 18 student-led Yankee Clipper experiments. These experiments are part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) which according to NASA "offers young scientists the opportunity to conceive of, design, implement and analyze scientific research questions in space".

The loss of the Antares rocket with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft along with the damage to the launch pad are a blow to Orbital that will be felt for sometime.

Onlookers Watch as Rocket Explodes


Launch from the Press Site


NASA Video of the Launch


View from a Plane


NASA Holds News Conference Following Orbital Launch Mishap

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