Experts are presently investigating the destruction of the unmanned space rocket Antares, which exploded during its launch on Tuesday, October 28th. Official investigations began on the 29th, but no definite cause for the accident has been identified so far.
Almost immediately upon leaving the launch pad at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Antares became engulfed in flames and was destroyed in midair. The falling wreckage caused considerable damage to the launch pad itself.
Although the cargo was lost, there were no casualties.
Antares was carrying around 5,000lbs (2,200 kgs) of supplies, which were intended for the six astronauts currently occupying the International Space Station. The rocket’s cargo included over 1,300lbs (600kg) of dried food, as well equipment for various scientific experiments.
Despite the loss of important supplies and equipment, the astronauts aboard the ISS will still have enough provisions to continue their work.
Frank Culbertson, executive vice-president of Orbital Sciences Corp, the firm that built the rocket, is confident that the cause of the explosion will soon be determined. He told BBC News that,
“We will understand what happened, hopefully soon, and we’ll get things back on track (…) we’ve all seen this happen in our business before, and we’ve all seen the teams recover from this, and we will do the same.”
Mr. Culbertson has also urged locals not to go “souvenir hunting” along the beach, as the rocket had been carrying hazardous materials.
Some business experts are now predicting that Orbital may suffer greatly in the face of harsh competition to supply the ISS.
The investigation could take weeks, or even more, before analysts are satisfied that they have found the root cause of the problem.
In any instance, it seems highly likely that the investigators will place considerable emphasis on the rocket’s AJ-26 engines, which were used to lift Antares from the launch pad.
Earlier versions of these same engines were developed for Russia’s N1 moon missions, which came to an ignominious end after all four launch attempts failed. The second attempt, in 1969, resulted in a calamity that completely destroyed both the rocket and the launch tower.
Another of these power units actually exploded during ground testing earlier this year.
Whatever the cause, this malfunction is expected to set any further Antares rocket launches back for a considerable amount of time.