The Orbital Sciences Antares rocket is a new rocket system. During a launch last night from the Mid-Atlantic Spaceport at Wallops Island, VA, only its fifth, something failed causing this spectacular explosion. Luckily, no one was injured, but it does appear there is significant damage to the launch facility.
The explosion occurred approximately 15 seconds into the flight.
The Antares rocket is Orbital Sciences’ entry into NASA’s COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program. The first launch of the Antares system was April 21, 2013. The first four launches were successful.
Designed to carry payloads over 5,000 kg, the Antares rocket system has been surrounded by controversy because the first stage uses a Soviet-designed NK-33 rocket motor modified by Aerojet. The now-designated AJ-26 engines were first designed for the cancelled N-1 rocket which was to be the Soviet Union’s launch vehicle for manned moon missions.
Two AJ-26 engines burn RP-1 and liquid oxygen to produce 3,265 kN of thrust at sea level. Since Orbital Sciences does not have a lot of experience with liquid-fueled rockets they contracted Yuzhnoye SDO from Ukraine to produce the rocket core, including the propellant tanks, pressurization tanks, valves, sensors, feed lines, wiring and other hardware.
It’s not unusual at all for a new rocket system to suffer setbacks. Even companies who have been in the rocket biz for years occasionally experience failed launches on new systems. In the world of controlling an explosion to propel a rocket to space it’s an undesirable, but not unexpected, occurrence. We learn from it, make corrections on future rockets, and move on.