One Year after Antares Failure, Orbital ATK Revamps Rocket for 2016 ‘Return to Flight’

Base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

One year after the catastrophic launch failure of Orbital ATK’s private Antares rocket seconds after liftoff with the Cygnus cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS), the firm is well on the way towards revamping the booster with modern new engines and implementing a ‘Return or Flight’ by approximately mid-2016, company officials told Universe Today. Antares is on the comeback trail.

Some 15 seconds after blastoff of the firms Antares/Cygnus rocket on October 28, 2014 on the Orb-3 resupply mission for NASA to the space station, the flight rapidly devolved into total disaster when one of the rockets first stage AJ26 engines suddenly blew up without warning after liftoff from NASA Wallops Island facility along the Eastern shore of Virginia at 6:22 p.m. ET.

After thoroughly investigating and evaluating the causes of the Orb-3 disaster, the top management of Continue reading “One Year after Antares Failure, Orbital ATK Revamps Rocket for 2016 ‘Return to Flight’”

Antares Rocket Failure Pushes Tiny Satellite Company To Hitch Ride With SpaceX

The various companies that had stuff sitting on the failed Orbital Sciences Antares rocket launch last month are busy looking for alternatives. One example is Planet Labs, which is best known for deploying dozens of tiny satellites from the International Space Station this year.

The company lost 26 satellites in the explosion. But within nine days of the Oct. 28 event, Planet Labs had a partial backup plan — send two replacements last-minute on an upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 launch.

In what Planet Labs’ Robbie Schingler calls “the future of aerospace”, almost immediately after the explosion Planet Labs began working with NanoRacks, which launches its satellites from the space station, to find a replacement flight. Half of Planet Labs’ employees began building satellites, while the other half began working through the regulations and logistics. They managed to squeeze two satellites last-minute on to the next SpaceX manifest, which is scheduled to launch in December.

“In space, each element is very difficult to get right by itself, and it takes an ecosystem to deliver a capability this quickly,” wrote Schingler, a president and co-founder of the company, in a blog post last week.

NanoRacks CubeSats deployed from the International Space Station in February 2014, during Expedition 38. Credit: NASA
NanoRacks CubeSats deployed from the International Space Station in February 2014, during Expedition 38. Credit: NASA

“Central to making this possible was developing our own custom design of the satellite that is free from specialty suppliers (thus decreasing lead time) and having a spacecraft design optimized for manufacturing and automated testing. Moreover, we certainly couldn’t have done it without the collaboration from NanoRacks and support from NASA, and we thank them for their support. This is a great example for how to create a resilient aerospace ecosystem.”

There’s no word on how they will replace the other satellites, nor how this will affect Planet Labs’ vision (explained in this March TED talk) to have these small sentinels frequently circling Earth to provide near-realtime information on what is happening with our planet. But the company acknowledged that space is hard and satellites do get lost from time to time.

The company has been testing hardware in space, Silicon Valley-style, and starting to sign partnerships with various entities who want access to the imagery. Check out some of the free stuff below.

Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Water from reservoirs developed on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the past 25 years enabled the expansion of cropland in the region, including these circular fields in the ?anliurfa Province of southeastern Turkey." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Water from reservoirs developed on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the past 25 years enabled the expansion of cropland in the region, including these circular fields in the ?anliurfa Province of southeastern Turkey.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Forty percent of the coal mined in the United States comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The North Antelope Rochelle Mine, pictured here, is both the largest in the basin, and the largest in the United States." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Forty percent of the coal mined in the United States comes from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. The North Antelope Rochelle Mine, pictured here, is both the largest in the basin, and the largest in the United States.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "The deep valleys and sharp ridges of the Nan Shan range in central China are highlighted in this early-morning satellite image." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “The deep valleys and sharp ridges of the Nan Shan range in central China are highlighted in this early-morning satellite image.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Vivid red maples stand out against the dark green evergreen forest and brown scrub landscape of the Pleasantview Hills." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Vivid red maples stand out against the dark green evergreen forest and brown scrub landscape of the Pleasantview Hills.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Filled in 1967, Lake Diefenbaker is a 140-mile-long reservoir along the South Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle Rivers. Diefenbaker is renowned for harboring extremely large fish: the world record rainbow trout (48 pounds) and burbot (25 pounds) were both caught in the lake." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Filled in 1967, Lake Diefenbaker is a 140-mile-long reservoir along the South Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle Rivers. Diefenbaker is renowned for harboring extremely large fish: the world record rainbow trout (48 pounds) and burbot (25 pounds) were both caught in the lake.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "The red, sediment-filled Colorado River contrasts with blue-green Havasu Creek in the heart of Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado River is almost always red in spring and summer, since it collects silt from a huge watershed. Short tributaries, however, usually run clear—only picking up significant sediment during flash floods." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “The red, sediment-filled Colorado River contrasts with blue-green Havasu Creek in the heart of Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado River is almost always red in spring and summer, since it collects silt from a huge watershed. Short tributaries, however, usually run clear—only picking up significant sediment during flash floods.” Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: "Dark green fields stand out against the pale desert floor in Pinal County, Arizona. The region’s farms rely on irrigation, since they receive less than 10 inches of rain a year. Irrigation water comes from two main sources: the Colorado River and aquifers." Credit: Planet Labs
Writes Planet Labs of this image: “Dark green fields stand out against the pale desert floor in Pinal County, Arizona. The region’s farms rely on irrigation, since they receive less than 10 inches of rain a year. Irrigation water comes from two main sources: the Colorado River and aquifers.” Credit: Planet Labs

Antares’ Doomed Descent into Hellish Inferno – Up Close Launch Pad Photo Exclusive: Pt. 1

Up close launch pad camera view as Antares descended into a hellish inferno after the first stage propulsion system at the base of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. The south side engine nozzle is clearly intact in this image. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story and photos expanded[/caption]

NASA WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY, VA – All was calm, the air was crisp with hope, and the skies were clear as far as the eye could see as the clock ticked down to T MINUS Zero for the Oct. 28, 2014, blastoff of an Orbital Sciences commercial Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on a mission of critical importance bound for the International Space Station and stocked with science and life support supplies for the six humans living and working aboard.

Tragically it was not to be – as I reported live from the NASA Wallops press site on that fateful October day. The 133 foot tall rocket’s base exploded violently and unexpectedly just seconds after a beautiful evening liftoff due to the failure of one of the refurbished AJ26 first stage “Americanized” Soviet-era engines built four decades ago.

And now for the first time, I can show you precisely what the terrible incendiary view was like through exclusive, up close launch pad photos and videos from myself and a group of space journalists working together from Universe Today, AmericaSpace, and Zero-G news.

Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares descended to doom after the first stage propulsion system at the base of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

I was an eyewitness to the awful devastation suffered by the Antares/Cygnus Orb-3 mission from the press viewing site at NASA Wallops located at a distance of about 1.8 miles away from the launch complex.

Our remote cameras were placed directly adjacent to the Antares pad OA at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, VA, and miraculously survived the rocket’s destruction as it plunged to the ground very near and just north of the seaside launch pad.

Matt 4

All of our team’s cameras and image cards were impounded by Orbital’s Accident Investigation Board (AIB) that was assembled quickly in the aftermath of the disaster and charged with determining the root cause of the launch failure.

The photos captured on our image cards were used as evidence and scrutinized by the investigators searching for clues as to the cause, and have only just been returned to us in the past two days. Similar NASA and Orbital Sciences photos have not been publicly released.

Collected here in Part 1 is a gallery of images from our combined journalist team of Universe Today, AmericaSpace, and Zero-G news. Part 2 will follow shortly and focus on our up close launch pad videos.

Close up view of Antares descent into hellish inferno shows south side first stage engine intact after north side engine at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Close up view of Antares’ destruction shows the south side first stage engine intact after the north side engine at the base of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares descended into a hellish inferno after the first stage propulsion system at the base of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

My lead image shows Antares’ descent into a hellish inferno. And more below clearly show that the south side engine nozzle was intact after the explosion. Thus it was the north side engine that blew up. See my up close AJ26 engine photo below.

Images from my colleagues Matthew Travis, Elliot Severn, Alex Polimeni, Charles Twine, and Jeff Seibert also show exquisite views of the explosion, fireball, and wreckage from various positions around the launch pad.

Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares destruction after the first stage propulsion system at the base of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

 

Close up view of Antares descent into hellish inferno shows south side first stage engine intact after north side engine at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Close up view of Antares’ destructive fall shows the south side first stage engine intact after the north side engine at the base of Orbital Sciences’ rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Moments after liftoff, the highly anticipated Antares launch suddenly devolved into utter catastrophe and a doomed descent into a hellish inferno of bloodcurdling terror – falling as a flaming incinerating carcass of unspeakable horror that ended in a mammoth deafening explosion as the pitiful wreckage smashed into the ground and blew back upwards as a raging fireball and hurtling debris that was visible across a wide swath of the sky.

The awful scene was seen by hordes of expectant spectators for miles around the Wallops area.

matt 2

The disaster’s cause has almost certainly been traced to a turbopump failure in one of the rocket’s Soviet-era first stage engines, according to official statements from David Thompson, Orbital’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

The AJ26 engines were originally manufactured some 40 years ago in the then Soviet Union as the NK-33.
They were refurbished and “Americanized” by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

“While still preliminary and subject to change, current evidence strongly suggests that one of the two AJ26 main engines that powered Antares first stage failed about 15 seconds after ignition. At this time, we believe the failure likely originated in or directly affected the turbopump machinery of this engine, but I want to stress that more analysis will be required to confirm that this finding is correct,” said Thompson.

Overall this was the 5th Antares launch using the AJ26 engines.

The 14 story Antares rocket is a two stage vehicle.

The liquid fueled first stage is filled with about 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) of Liquid Oxygen and Refined Petroleum (LOX/RP) and powered by a pair of AJ26 engines that generate a combined 734,000 pounds (3,265kN) of sea level thrust.

The Oct. 28 launch disaster was just the latest in a string of serious problems with the AJ-26/NK-33 engines.

Earlier this year an AJ26 engine failed and exploded during pre launch acceptance testing on a test stand on May 22, 2014 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Besides completely destroying the AJ26 engine, the explosion during engine testing also severely damaged the Stennis test stand. It has taken months of hard work to rebuild and restore the test stand and place it back into service.

Matt 5

Antares was carrying Orbital’s privately developed Cygnus pressurized cargo freighter loaded with nearly 5000 pounds (2200 kg) of science experiments, research instruments, crew provisions, spare parts, spacewalk and computer equipment and gear on a critical resupply mission dubbed Orb-3 bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

It was the heaviest cargo load yet lofted by a Cygnus. Some 800 pounds additional cargo was loaded on board compared to earlier flights. That was enabled by using the more powerful ATK CASTOR 30XL engine to power the second stage for the first time.

Ellio 3
The astronauts and cosmonauts depend on a regular supply train from the ISS partners to kept it afloat and productive on a 24/7 basis.

The Orbital-3, or Orb-3, mission was to be the third of eight cargo resupply missions to the ISS through 2016 under the NASA Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract award valued at $1.9 Billion.

Orbital Sciences is under contract to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts, and hardware for the eight ISS flights.

Enjoy the photo gallery herein.

And watch for Part 2 shortly with exquisite videos, more photos, and personal reflections from our team.

Antares descended into hellish inferno after first stage propulsion system at base of Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares descended into a hellish inferno after the first stage propulsion system at the base of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded moments after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014, at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stand erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before their first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, targeted for Oct. 27 at 6:45 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Antares rocket stand erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before the planned first night launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, that ended in tragic failure on Oct. 28. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Watch here for Ken’s ongoing reporting about Antares and NASA Wallops.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Elliot 2

Elliot 4

_MG_3036_lzn

_MG_3019

_7SC1506C

Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes into an aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explodes into an aerial fireball seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 p.m. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallaps.  These engines powered the successful Antares  liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014 at NASA Wallops, Virginia bound for the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Soviet era NK-33 engines refurbished as the AJ26 exactly like pictured here probably caused Antares’ rocket failure on Oct. 28, 2014. Orbital Sciences technicians at work on two AJ26 first stage engines at the base of an Antares rocket during exclusive visit by Ken Kremer/Universe Today at NASA Wallops. These engines powered the successful Antares liftoff on Jan. 9, 2014, at NASA Wallops, Virginia, bound for the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Up Close Launch Pad remote camera photographers during prelaunch setup for Orb-3 mission at NASA Wallops launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Up Close Launch Pad remote camera photographers during prelaunch setup for Orb-3 mission at NASA Wallops launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com