Data Show Antares Rocket Fine for First 15 Seconds, Then First Stage Failure

Data Show Antares Rocket Fine for First 15 Seconds, Then First Stage Failure

Orbital Sciences Corporation said today that telemetry from the Antares rocket that failed on Tuesday night indicates that there were no issues before launch or for the first 15 seconds afterwards.  What happened thereafter is still being investigated.

“Evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground,” the company said in a statement today. 

Orbital was attempting to launch Antares with a Cygnus spacecraft loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of cargo destined for the International Space Station (ISS).  This was the company’s third operational cargo resupply mission to the ISS, designated Orb-3.  Four previous Antares launches took place without incident.  The launches are part of NASA’s commercial cargo program to supply the ISS using commercial rather than government-built space transportation systems.   As part of its $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital is required to launch 20 tons of supplies to the ISS through 2016.

The Antares first stage is powered by two AJ26 engines provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne.  They are refurbished Russian NK33 engines built more than 40 years ago and much speculation is focused on them as the cause of the failure, but Orbital officials stress that they passed intensive tests before being cleared for launch.   Orbital’s President and CEO Dave Thompson noted yesterday that first impressions are not always correct and full analysis of telemetry, imagery and debris is needed before making final determinations about cause.

The rocket fell close to, but not on, the launch pad, Orbital said, adding that “[p]rior to impacting the ground, the rocket’s Flight Termination System was engaged by the designated official in the Wallops Range Control Center.”  That is a reference to the range safety control system and the Range Safety Officer.  Rockets can be detonated by remote control if they veer off course in order to avoid impacting or raining debris over populated areas.

Orbital added that additional inspections of the launch site continue to show that it avoided major damage.  Some of the cargo that was aboard the Cygnus spacecraft has been found and will be retrieved when clearance is given to see if anything survived.

NASA provided a more detailed manifest of what was aboard Cygnus.

Orbital’s stock rose 3 percent today, after a nearly 17 percent drop yesterday.

Orbital is leading the Accident Investigation Board to determine what happened, which includes members from NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) providing oversight of the process.  The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation regulates the commercial launch vehicle industry.  

Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.

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