A report released today indicates that the unmanned Antares rocket that exploded off the coast of Virginia was deliberately destroyed by its operator after it became apparent there was a problem during the launch. Orbital Sciences Corporation said on its website that evidence suggests the problem started in the rocket’s first stage and that it “fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad.”
The Antares rocket exploded in a huge ball of fire shortly after lift-off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Tuesday evening, destroying the Cygnus spacecraft in the process. The launch, originally scheduled for Monday evening, had to be scrubbed because of a boat down range in the trajectory Antares would have flown had it lifted off, which is a range safety violation. The rocket and its Cygnus cargo module were carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments for the International Space Station.
A spokesman for Orbital Sciences Corporation stated that when it was indicated that there was a problem and scientists realized that the rocket would likely not make it into orbit, the destruct system was started so that the rocket would not wind up in a populated area. All systems appeared to be performing nominally until approximately T+15 seconds at which point the failure occurred. The resultant explosion caused a large fire at the facility which produced significant property damage. Despite the amount of destroyed debris that remains on site, officials say it is likely substantial hardware evidence will be available to aid in determining root cause of the Antares launch failure. Some of the Cygnus cargo has also been found and will be retrieved as soon as clearance is given to see if any survived intact.
The launch site itself was able to avoid major damage, but there is some evidence of damage to piping that runs between the fuel and commodity storage vessels and the launch mount, but no evidence of significant damage to either the storage vessels or launch mount. Detailed inspections will continue to determine what kind of repairs will be needed.
According to the Orbital Sciences website, the company’s senior managers have begun developing a comprehensive plan to maintain the cargo supply line between Earth and the International Space Station, fulfilling Orbital’s commitment to NASA for the delivery of supplies for the astronaut crew, necessary equipment for the operation and maintenance of the station, and scientific experiments conducted aboard the orbiting laboratory.