Orbital’s Antares fails seconds after launch
October 28, 2014 by William Graham and Chris Bergin
Orbital’s Antares launch vehicle – tasked with lofting the CRS-3 Cygnus to the International Space Station (ISS) – dramatically failed after around ten seconds of flight, exploding and falling back on to the launch center. There is extensive damage to the Wallops facility, although it has been confirmed all personnel are accounted for, with no injuries reported.
Attempt 1 on Monday was scubbed due to boat in the Range Safety area. Boat did not depart the area in time to allow Antares to launch within her 10 minute window. *UPDATES For Attempt 1*
Attempt 2: Vehicle was recycled for a launch at a T-0 of 18:22 local time. Launch ended in failure after around six seconds. *UPDATES For Attempt 2*
The mission, Orbital CRS-3, was to mark the first flight of the upgraded Antares 130 rocket, which featured a more powerful second stage to accommodate larger future payloads.
As such, the upgrade would have had no relevance to the failure.
First flown in April 2013, the launch was the fifth flight of Orbital’s Antares rocket which was developed specifically to launch the Cygnus spacecraft. However, it was the first time a problem of any kind was seen during her career.
The Antares 130 made use of the same first stage as its predecessors. Of Ukrainian design and based loosely on the first stage of the Zenit rocket, the stage was developed by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau.
It is powered by a pair of AJ26-58 engines, which are themselves reconditioned NK-33 engines left over from the Soviet Union’s cancelled N-1F rocket. The USSR abandoned the N-1F in the early 1970s after all four test flights of a prototype, the N-1, ended in failure.
One AJ-26 failed during a test stand incident in May of this year.
An interstage unit is used to connect the first and second stages and the payload fairing.
The Cygnus is a pressurised cargo spacecraft developed by Orbital Sciences under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.
In December 2008 it was awarded a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to conduct eight operational resupply missions to the ISS.
The launch was to be the start of the third CRS mission.
The rocket was hosted at Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia.
It was the sixth launch from the pad, following the four previous Antares launches and the single launch of Space Services Incorporated’s Conestoga 1620 rocket in October 1995.
The Conestoga launch ended in failure with the rocket being destroyed by range safety after a hydraulic failure during first stage flight resulted in a loss of control.
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is a commercial launch site which also includes Pad 0B, used by smaller solid-fuelled rockets. That pad has been used by Orbital for Minotaur I and V launches, along with Alliant Techsystems’ suborbital ALV X-1 launch in 2008, which was destroyed by range safety early in its mission.
In preparation for Tuesday launch, the Antares was rolled to its launch pad overnight Friday. Launch operations began with a call to stations three hours and fifty minutes ahead of liftoff, with propellant loading beginning around ninety minutes before launch.
During the final stages of the countdown, the spacecraft transferred onto internal power at around the fifteen minute mark. The rocket was switched to internal power ten minutes later, with the terminal count beginning around three minutes before liftoff. Two minutes before launch the first stage propellant tanks were pressurised.
When the countdown reached zero, the AJ-26 engines ignited with Antares lifting off 2.2 seconds later to begin its climb towards orbit.
However, after around ten seconds into ascent, the engine plume changed appearance, before the aft of the vehicle exploded. The rest of the vehicle – including Cygnus – fell back on to the launch pad area and exploded.
More information on the failure is expected over the coming hours.
The launch was to be the sixty-eighth orbital launch attempt of 2014 and the twentieth for the United States.
It was also planned to be the third and final Antares launch of the year, with Orbital’s next launch scheduled for 1 April next year, with another Antares 130 carrying the first Enhanced Cygnus mission to the ISS. This launch will clearly be delayed.
An investigation will be set up, with Orbital leading the effort to find the root cause of the failure. The public has been told not to touch or collect any debris that may wash up outside of the launch center.
The next Commercial Resupply Services mission is due to launch in early December, with SpaceX using a Dragon spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station following launch atop a Falcon 9.
Before that Russia will conduct two missions to the outpost; on Wednesday Progress M-25M will lift off carrying cargo, while the manned Soyuz TMA-15M will transport three crew members to the station in late November.
Wednesday’s launch, which is scheduled for 07:09 UTC, will mark the first use of Russia’s Soyuz-2-1a rocket on a Progress launch or a mission to the ISS.
More will follow.
(Images: via L2’s Antares/Cygnus Section – Containing presentations, videos, a vast set of unreleased hi-res images, interactive high level updates and more, with additional images via Orbital and NASA).
(Click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/ – to view how you can support NSF and access the best space flight content on the entire internet).
Fortunately nobody was hurt, but it's still a very expensive and visible failure, and Antares may be grounded for quite a while. I have great sympathy for all the engineers at Orbital, and the people with payloads in the Cygnus capsule that was being launched.
There's no official word yet on what happened, but I love wild and unfounded speculation. Something clearly exploded at the bottom of the rocket, causing immediate loss of thrust. The best guess I've heard so far is that one of the first stage engines blew up. One of them did exactly that while being tested earlier this year, and these engines have been sitting in a warehouse for 40 years since they were originally built for the USSR's N-1 moon rocket, so perhaps corrosion or something similar took its toll.