Last month, we reported on the Orbital Science's Antares rocket explosion. A few seconds after lifting off from Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Oct. 28, the rocket appeared to explode and fall back onto the pad. It was soon revealed that the rocket's Flight Termination System (FTS) detected an anomaly and self-desctructed, destroying the rocket and its 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg) of cargo — intended for resupply of the International Space Station (ISS) under a $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract. Orbital Sciences, together with the National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) investigated the disaster and determined that a turbo pump in one of the rocket's two main first stage engines failed.
“Current evidence strongly suggests that one of the two AJ-26 main engines that powered Antares’ first stage failed about 15 seconds after ignition,” David W. Thompson, chief executive of Orbital Sciences, said in a conference call with financial analysts.
“At this time, we believe the failure likely originated in, or directly affected, the turbopump machinery of this engine,” he said, adding that more analysis was needed before the company could reach a definitive conclusion about the failure.
The Antares first stage is powered by two Aerojet Rocketdyne (Rocketdyne) AJ-26 engines. The AJ-26 engine was first developed over 40 years ago as an NK-33 engine, manufactured by the Kuztensov Design Bureau of the former Soviet Union. The NK-33 was desgined to be a replacement for the NK-15 engine, used on the Soviet N-1 Moon rocket. All four launch attempts failed, and the program was ultimately canceled before the NK-33's could be used. As a result the engines sat dormant in a warehouse for over 20 years.
Kuznetsov is Russia’s leading manufacturer of aviation gas-turbine and liquid-fueled rocket engines. Kuznetsov engines have been used to power the Russian manned spaceships - Vostok, Voskhod, Soyuz as well as the Progress space freighter. The company’s engineers advised the U.S. on how to best adapt the Russian engine for use on Antares.
In the mid 1990's, the leftover NK-33 engines were purchased by Rocketdyne, refurbished and upgraded. In total, Rocketdyne purchased 40 NK-33's. As part of the upgrades, each engine received new, advanced electronics, as well as a steering/gimbaling system. Once the renovations were complete, the Virginia-based Orbital Science company purchased 20 of the newly christened "AJ-26" engines for use on their Antares rocket.
Despite all the upgrades, the AJ-26 has a less-than-stellar reputation, including two recent test failures. In June 2011, during a test fire on the E-1 test stand out at NASA's Stennis Space Center (SSC), an AJ-26 engine caught fire on the test stand. A subsequent investigation showed the failure was due to a fuel leak caused by "Stress corrosion cracking of the 40-year-old metal."
Just this year, on May 22, a second AJ-26 failed on the very same E-1 test stand. The failure occurred 30-seconds into a 54-second test. Rocketdyne's SSC General Manager, Mike McDaniel, was reluctant to classify the May failure as an "explosion". He did, however, confirm that the engine disintegrated during the test.
McDaniel was asked if the failures were a result of the engine's age/Soviet-era issue, versus a result of the Rocketdyne modifications. He leaned toward the former, but neither Rocketdyne, nor Orbital have issued any other explanation for the failure. On Sept. 30, Orbital did announce it was on the hunt for a replacement engine, but the replacement would not take effect for two years.
Following the Antares explosion, Orbital’s Chairman, President and CEO, David Thompson, stated that “…it is possible that we may decide to accelerate this change if the AJ-26 turns out to be implicated in the failure. But this has not yet been decided . . . . We are currently looking at the prospects for accelerating the introduction of that system and I do not at this point have a firm estimate for how much of that two-year period could be compressed. I certainly think we can shorten that interval but at this point I don’t know by how much.”
Thompson went on to confirm that there are “adequate AJ-26 engines in inventory, which subject to the ground testing and flight worthiness determinations, would fulfill all of our commitments under the current [CRS Phase 1] contract.”
Following the Oct. explosion, NASA's Wallops Incident Response Team worked diligently to complete an assessment of Wallops Island and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). Their findings show that the key elements of the launch complex, such as fuel tanks and the actual launch pad avoided serious damage. Some minor repairs will be necessary, but overall this is good news. There was also significant debris on site.
“After up close visual inspections by the safety team, it still appears the launch site itself avoided major damage,” Orbital said in a statement. “There is some evidence of damage to piping that runs between the fuel and commodity storage vessels and the launch mount, but no evidence of significant damage to either the storage vessels or launch mount.”
Further analysis will be conducted to fully comprehend the extent of the disaster. The team also discovered that severall support buildings in the area will need repair due to broken windows and imploded doors. In addition, a sounding rocket launcher near the pad and adjacent buildings appear to have suffered the most damage. One of the main concerns was the hazardous fuel on board the rocket and how it affect the surrounding area. Multiple samples were collected at various locations and no hazardous substances were detected as well as no signs of water pollution.
Wallops Flight Facility spokesperson, Keith Koehler, said that 25 small pieces of debris were reported by the public. These ranged in size from a postage stamp to a piece of paper. The larger debris pieces were well-contained within NASA's designated hazard zone.
Fortunately, there were no fatalities or injuries as a result of the explosion; however, the rocket and the launch pad were not the only casualties. An Orbital Science's Cygnus spacecraft sat atop the Antares rocket, packed with over 1,600 pounds of science experiments, in addition to crew supplies, food, and equipment. Some of the investigations included a device to chemically analyze meteors as they burn up in Earth's atmosphere, as well as a prototype satellite from Planetary Resources, Inc., a Washington-based startup. The satellite, A3, was to be released into space by one of the station's launcher. Planetary Resources is currently developing technology to mine asteroids.
A high-definition camera, otherwise known as Meteor, was to be the first dedicated instrument designed to monitor meteor showers from the International Space Station (ISS). The camera was to be installed behind the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF), and remain for two years, measuring the trajectories, size, and compositon of meteors as they fly through our atmosphere.
Michael Fortenberry, principal engineer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and the developer of Meteor, watched the launch remotely as it exploded. Although he was shocked, his vast experience in aerospace has prepared him for all kinds of setbacks, Wired.com reported.“Anytime you do something like this, there’s a chance there’s going to be an accident or failure.” But, he added, of all the failures he’s seen in his career, “this is by far the most catastrophic.” While he wasn’t at the launch, his colleagues were. “They were pretty shocked also. Luckily, nobody was hurt and all of the equipment can be replaced.”
The University of Texas (UT) sent up a unique CubeSat experiment, Radiometer Atmospheric Cubesat Experiment (RACE). RACE was created in the student's spare time and was designed to measure water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere. The students behind RACE were very passionate about this project, with most coming in on weekends and holidays to work on it. UT engineering professor Glenn Lightsey said, "You come in on weekends and they are here. You come in on holidays and they are here. They really see the value of what they are doing and they are really motivated by it.”
Ultimately, their 18 months of hard work was gone in a matter of seconds, but that has not discouraged Lightsey or his students. “We could all turn away from aerospace,” said one of the students Parker Francis, “but we are stronger than that, and more passionate than that. This mission was taken away from us, but it won’t prevent us from pushing on and getting important scientific missions out there.”
We've heard this phrase many times and this explosion is a perfect example of why we say "Space is hard." Or as the famous Latin phrase goes, "ad astra per aspera", meaning through hardships to the stars. This explosion should not deter future missions and in no way undercuts NASA's reliance on contractors such as Orbital and its competitor Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). NASA's associate administrator for human space exploration and operations, William Gerstenmaier, explained, "It’s going to take a little while to sort through all of this stuff, so be very careful with first reports."
“It’s well-known that if you’re developing a new rocket design you’re going to lose three of the first 10,” former NASA administrator Mike Griffin said. “That happens. Orbital’s record so far has been great. They’ve lost one out of five. I don’t think anybody’s surprised by that. It’s obviously tragic and upsetting, but we’ll move on."
His views were shared by other industry experts. “We can’t allow the one incident of the Antares vehicle loss to smear space commercialization in Washington and on the Hill,” Boston-based space analyst Charles Lurio said.
Dan Dumbacher, former deputy associate administrator of NASA’s human exploration program, said the explosion doesn’t undercut the U.S.’ decision to rely on these new space companies. “I don’t think it says anything at all,” Dumbacher noted. “It says space is hard.”
“I want to praise the launch team, range safety, all of our emergency responders and those who provided mutual aid and support on a highly-professional response that ensured the safety of our most important resource – our people,” said Bill Wrobel, Wallops director. “In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will rebound stronger than ever.”
As a result of the failure, Orbital’s future launches could be delayed for a year – or more. “I would hope it would not be more than a year,” said David Thompson, Orbital’s CEO. “We intend to as quickly as we can bounce back from this failure.”
With views like these, it's hard to fathom how all these cameras survived the blast. Normally, photographers are able to recover remote cameras a few hours after a launch, as soon it is safe. We are just now seeing this incredible new images because the remote camera footage was collected, and sorted through by Orbital and their investigation team.
So where does Orbital go from here? Orbital has no plans of defaulting on its contract with NASA. All of the remaining cargo will be delivered to the space station by the end of 2016 with no additional costs to NASA and only minor adjustments in cargo manifests. Orbital will speed up the replacement of the Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines.
In order to comply with the ISS supply timeline, Orbital will unveil its new propulsion system in early 2016, with one or two non-Antares launches next year. The Cygnus is compatible with multiple launch vehicles and the temporary rocket has not yet been revealed. Speculation hints at the SpaceX Falcon 9, Arianespace's Ariane 5, and perhaps even a Soyuz. Next year, Orbital expects to complete all necessary repairs to the MARS launch complex and Pad-0A at the Wallops Flight Facility.
“Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station. While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback. We intend to move forward safely but also expeditiously to put our CRS cargo program back on track and to accelerate the introduction of our upgraded Antares rocket,” said Mr. David W. Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
“Exact financial impacts to Orbital will depend on which of several specific options for near-term launches is selected, but they are not expected to be material on an annual basis in 2015. In all cases, no significant adverse effects are projected in 2016 or future years, in part because the cost of the Antares propulsion system upgrade was already part of our internal investment plan during that time,” he added.
“We very much appreciate the tremendous support Orbital has received from NASA and Virginia’s MARS commercial spaceport team over the last seven years on our Antares rocket and CRS cargo programs. We look forward to working closely with them to quickly recover from last week’s setback,” Thompson concluded.