Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cygnus Spacecraft Destroyed in Explosion

The Antares rocket suffers its first explosion. The rocket then fell back onto the launchpad in a terrifying fireball. Credit NASA.

Yesterday at 4:22 P.M. our time in Utah, 6:22 on the East Coast, Mission CRS-3 was destroyed during liftoff. The mission was the third launch of Orbital Science's Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station this year. The Cygnus craft on this mission was nicknamed "Slayton" after astronaut Deke Slayton (deceased), one of the original Mercury astronauts. The Cygnus carried 5,000 pounds of supplies, equipment and experiments, all of which were lost when the spacecraft erupted in flames during the crash.

The final fireball completely enveloped the launchpad. No personnel were in the area.

15 seconds after ignition, the rocket seemed to be soaring upwards when unexpected flames erupted from the first stage. The rocket stopped moving upwards and fell back onto the pad, erupting more flames as it fell, finally being destroyed in a magnificent explosion. Scientists with Orbital Sciences and NASA immediately began contingency operations to backup all data and film in the control room and surrounding the pad while emergency crews raced to the pad to put out the fires. The launch site involved was Pad 0A at the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Atlantic coast. The Antares rocket used for this flight used the AJ-26 engines made in the Ukraine. These engines are modified Russian rockets from the old Soviet N-1 Moon Rocket program. There have been several Antares flights with these rocket engines, and none had this kind of problem, although an AJ-26 engine suffered a failure during a test. Investigators will have to determine if the disaster was caused by the engines or some other malfunction.

Distant view of the disaster from the Virginia mainland.

Astronauts on the ISS watched the disaster on live satellite broadcast (as did everyone tuning in on NASA TV). The crew of the ISS are OK with the supplies they have for a little time, and can wait for upcoming supplies. In fact, A Russian Soyuz rocket blasted off very early this morning from Baikonur lifting its Progress M-25M cargo spacecraft into orbit. About six hours later, it has already docked with the station. The Progress supply craft brings needed cargo, water, and propellant to the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon supply ship is scheduled to launch to the ISS in December.

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