At a press conference arranged only a few hours after the event, NASA released details of the explosion of the Antares rocket carrying the unmanned Cygnus supply ship to the International Space Station (ISS). The space agency said that the launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, where the 240,000-kg (530,000-lb) rocket went up in flames seconds after lift off has been cordoned off by firefighters until daylight because of the on-going hazards from fires, and scattered solid and hypergolic fuel from the Antares.
NASA says that Orbital Sciences Corporation (the builders and operators of the Cygnus and Antares), the US FAA, and NASA are investigating what happened to the Antares rocket when it was destroyed at 6:22 pm EDT. It suffered a “catastrophic anomaly” 10 to 12 seconds after launch, after which the range safety officer activated the rocket’s autodestruct. No injuries were reported and all personnel have been accounted for, with damage confined to the south end of Wallops Island, though there was some debris was scattered over the water.
At the press conference, NASA and Orbital Science representatives said that the explosion resulted in the loss of the US$200 million spacecraft, plus damage to the ground facilities. Pad damage was sustained, but instrument readings indicate that some systems are still holding pressure, so are not seriously damaged. However, the exact extent of the accident is still unknown. In addition, the spacecraft processing facilities seem undamaged.
The destruction of the Cygnus freighter means the loss of 5,000 lb (2,200 kg) of cargo originally destined for the ISS. Because of this, the manifest for later missions will have to be swapped around to make up for the destruction of the cargo ship. However, NASA says that the station is in no danger because there was no critical cargo aboard and that the ISS can remain functioning without resupply for four to six months. In addition, a Progress supply ship launches on Wednesday and a SpaceX Dragon is scheduled to launch on December 9.
The explosion also destroyed a piggyback cargo from the asteroid mining start up, Planetary Resources. The company was sending up its Arkyd 3 demonstrator, but in a statement Planetary Resources said that it had already met its objectives by delivering the miniature space telescope to the launch pad and that another launch of its Arkyd 6 is scheduled to launch next year.
According to NASA, the investigation into the accident will include moving into the area when it’s been deemed safe, during which debris will be tagged, collected, and sent off for analysis. In addition, the investigators are working on securing and reviewing telemetry and video from the launch vehicle and cargo craft. The investigation is expected to take weeks. In the meantime, the public are warned to remain away from the area and if they find any debris from the accident, they are not to touch it and to call 757-824-1295.
In a statement, William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, said:
"While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences' third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful today, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today's mishap. The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies.
"Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station."
NASA says further information will be released as it becomes available.