Antares rocket explodes
Hours after a spectacular launch failure that destroyed a Ukranian-American built rocket carrying supplies for the International Space Station (ISS), Russia successfully launched a Progress cargo craft from Kazakhstan carrying fuel, water, air, crew supplies and other equipment needed aboard the orbiting complex.
Investigators are working to piece together the reasons why a $200m unmanned supply rocket also bound for the Space Station exploded shortly after launch from Nasa’s Wallops Island pad in Virginia about eight hours earlier.
The loss was a major setback for Orbital Sciences Corp’s plans to establish routine Space Station access under a $1.9 billion contract with NASA calling for delivery of 20 tons of hardware over at least eight flights into 2016.
Despite public perception, there is still nothing routine about spaceflight as millions of enthusiasts and news broadcasters around the world witnessed the failed launch during live internet and TV broadcasts.
The initial seconds of the ascent appeared normal as the booster climbed straight up, its first stage engines burning oxygen and RP-1 kerosene rocket fuel. But just 12 to 15 seconds or so after liftoff a catastrophic failure occurred, appearing to originate at the base of the rocket, and a self-destruct command was initiated.
The flight was expected to be the third contracted mission with Nasa and the rocket was carrying around 2,200 kg of supplies to six astronauts aboard the Space Station, as well as research hardware, student experiments, spare parts and 32 small nanosatellites.
It marked a major setback for the US side of the Space Station programme which is attempting to fill the void left by the Space Shuttle’s retirement by using commercially developed cargo ships to carry supplies and equipment once carried by the manned orbiter.
Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus cargo vehicle is one of two resupply systems funded by Nasa. The other is from SpaceX which holds a $1.6 billion contract for at least 12 missions and has its next two resupply flights planned for December and February.
The US space agency ‘seeded’ development of Antares – and the supply ship it launches, Cygnus – by giving incentive payments to manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation, to help it develop a low-cost, commercial follow-on to fill the cargo gap left by the retired Space Shuttles.
Antares’ first stage is built by the Ukranian company Yuzhnoe and uses Aerojet AJ-26 engines which are Russian NK-33 engines. These are old engines (built in the 1960s and 70s) that are refurbished and, while it’s not known if these were the cause of the explosion, they will be carefully scrutinized in the investigation. A recent test of one engine ended in failure.
The explosion seriously damaged the launch pad and support infrastructure, meaning that even if the fault is quickly identified and corrected, restarting Antares’ flights again may take longer than the next planned launch in the spring.
Russia’s Roskomos space agency said it was ready to help ferry extra US cargo to the Space Station if Nasa requested assistance.
Its Progress M-25M/57P spacecraft, mounted atop an upgraded Soyuz-2.1a rocket on its first flight, blasted off earlier today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and quickly climbed away through a cloudless blue sky on an easterly trajectory setting up a six-hour rendezvous with the Space Station.