Unmanned Antares rocket explodes upon liftoff in Virginia

The Baltimore Sun
A private, unmanned rocket exploded seconds after launching from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

A private, unmanned rocket exploded seconds after liftoff Tuesday at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the southern tip of the Eastern Shore.

The 14-story, $200 million Antares rocket was carrying the Cygnus spacecraft with 5,000 lbs. of cargo to resupply the International Space Station, when it became engulfed in flames just after its 6:22 p.m. liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

The cause of the explosion was unclear. NASA said no one was hurt, and damage was limited to the south end of Wallops Island.

The Wallops Flight Facility is located on Virginia's Eastern Shore, nine miles south of the Maryland line.

Rocket owner Orbital Sciences Corp. called the launch a "catastrophic failure." In a statement, the Virginia company said it had formed an anomaly investigation board, which will work with the National Transportation Safety Board and other government agencies to determine the cause.

NASA and Orbital promised periodic updates on the investigation.

"It is far too early to know the details of what happened," said Frank Culbertson, Orbital's executive vice president and general manager of its Advanced Programs Group.

"As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations," he said. "We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident."

The rocket launch was initially scheduled for Monday, but officials ordered a delay after a boat entered the safety zone southwest of the launch pad.

At the moment of launch on Tuesday, the ground rumbled and the horizon brightened, but the rocket didn't rise far before it burst into a fireball that lit up the night sky. A boom shook the ground, and spectators knew something had gone wrong.

Flames rose from a 100-yard radius around the site, and a large, dark plume of smoke billowed north toward Maryland. Fire engines converged to put out the flames.

NASA and Orbital asked anyone who finds debris to contact the incident response team at 757-824-1295.

Orbital Sciences, headquartered in Fairfax County, was one of two companies hired by NASA to fly cargo to the station after the agency retired the space shuttles. The flight Tuesday was to be the third of eight under a $1.9 billion contract.

The second U.S. supply line to the station is run by Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX. The California-based company is preparing for its fourth flight Dec. 9 under a separate, $1.6 billion NASA contract.

The Antares rocket, outfitted with a powerful new upper-stage engine, carried a Cygnus spacecraft packed with 5,055 pounds of supplies, science experiments and equipment, a 15 percent increase over previous missions.

Cygnus was to loiter in orbit until Nov. 2, then fly itself to the station so astronauts could use a robotic crane to snare the capsule and attach it to a berthing port. The station, a $100 billion research laboratory owned and operated by 15 nations, flies about 260 miles above Earth.

The International Space Station has enough food, supplies and equipment to last through next March, officials said.

The spacecraft was loaded with more than 1,600 pounds of science experiments, including an investigation to chemically analyze meteors as they burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

It also carried many student experiments, including one on the effects of microgravity on plant growth and the rates of milk spoilage in space, and an international research study on blood flow from the brain to the heart in zero-gravity.

The Cygnus also carried a prototype satellite owned by Planetary Resources Inc., a Washington state-based startup that is developing technology to mine asteroids.

The satellite, designated A3, was to be released into space by a commercially owned small spacecraft launcher aboard the station.

Rocket launches at Wallops Island draw locals and tourists, who stake out seats hours in advance to find their best view.

On Tuesday, a crowd of about two dozen parked lawn chairs on the tip of an old boat launch on Wishart Point about three miles from the pad. They brought binoculars and tripods in prepartion for what they expected would be a majestic sight.

Spectators monitored social media and listened to NASA broadcasts on their phones for updates, and were excited when NASA announced the all-clear.

Reuters contributed to this article.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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