Update: Probe launched after Cygnus rocket explodes on launch

NASA-contracted Orbital Sciences cargo spacecraft suffers 'catastrophic anomaly'

Antares rocket explosion
Reuters/NASA TV

Investigators began studying the telemetry from the Antares rocket that exploded on launch Tuesday night and began the painstaking job of combing through potentially dangerous debris at daybreak Wednesday.

Carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies and scientific equipment, the unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus cargo craft and the Antares rocket it was riding exploded just after launch launch at 6:22 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

The lost rocket and cargo craft cost more than $200 million, the company reported. It’s unclear how much it will cost to repair the damaged launch facility.

The spacecraft had just lifted off to start its third re-supply mission to the International Space Station when it paused, began to fall and then exploded at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

No one was hurt in the accident and all personnel -- from both NASA and Orbital Science -- in the area have been accounted for, NASA reported.

The rocket suffered a catastrophic anomaly, but investigators from both NASA and Orbital Sciences are not yet sure what caused the problem. The Orbital Science team reportedly did not note any issues before the crash.

“We will not fly until we understand the root cause and can make sure this does not happen again,” Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president, said in a press conference held hours after the crash. “I can assure you we will find out what went wrong. We will correct it and we will fly again.”

Orbital Sciences, aided by the FAA and NASA, is leading the investigation into the accident.

Culbertson said immediately after the explosion his team began going through the “reams and reams” of data that was sent to mission control from the rocket during launch. Investigators also will be viewing all of the video and images taken by the dozens of cameras surrounding the launch pad.

By 9:30 on Tuesday night, the fires burning around the launch site had been contained and were being allowed to burn themselves out. Today, investigators are expected to begin locating and tagging as much of the hardware and debris they can recover around the site and in the ocean.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, warned the public to stay away from the accident area and to stay clear of any debris that might wash onshore or land on their property because of the fuels and chemicals that could be on them.

Anyone who finds debris is asked to call NASA’s incident response team at 757-824-1295.

Neither NASA, nor Orbital Sciences, could speculate on the damage done to the launch site, though some systems in the area were still functioning enough to send back data.

The launch pad where the accident occurred is the only one certified to handle an Antares rocket launch so it will have to be repaired before Orbital Sciences can fly again.

The cargo craft was carrying crew provisions, spare parts and scientific experiments.

NASA noted that the astronauts living and working on the space station are not in jeopardy because of the loss of supplies caused by the explosion. The crew has enough food, water and “other consumables” to last until next March.

SpaceX, the second company NASA has contracted with to supply the space station, has a supply mission slated to launch in early December. NASA plans to swap out some of its planned cargo to replace some of the supplies that should have gone to the station this week.

The crew onboard the space station was watching the launch on a live stream.

The Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft on board, rolls from the Horizontal Integration Facility to launch Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, last Friday. 

Antares rollout REUTERS/Joel Kowsky/NASA/Handout

The Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft on board, rolls from the Horizontal Integration Facility to launch Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, last Friday. 

It was originally scheduled to launch on Monday, but that launch was scrubbed because a boat was in a restricted zone near the launch area.

NASA has contracted with Orbital Science to provide five more resupply missions after this one.

The accident comes just days after the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft returned to Earth. On Saturday, the spacecraft left the space station and landed safely in the Pacific Ocean, wrapping up its fourth contracted cargo resupply mission to the orbiting station.

SpaceX has a contract to make eight more resupply trips to the station.

Since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, the space agency has been relying on commercial companies to ferry supplies to the space station.

Gerstenmaier said he believes Orbital Sciences will get back on its feet. “Launch is a really tough business,” he said. “When we look at all the events that occur and go well, we need to recognize how difficult and demanding these things are… We’re disappointed in this activity, but we have confidence in orbital to get back to flying.”


Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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