There’s numerous stories about the heydays of rocket engineering, when humanity was toying around with a newfound power that we had little understanding of. People who lived near NASA’s test rocket ranges reported that they’d often wait for a launch and the inevitable fireball that would soon follow. Today launching things into space is a well understood territory and catastrophic failures are few and far between. Still when you’re putting several thousand tons worth of kerosene and oxygen together then putting a match to them there’s still the possibility that things will go wrong and, unfortunately for a lot of people, something did with the latest launch of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket.
The mission that it was launching was CRS Orb-3, the third resupply mission to the International Space Station using Orbital Sciences Cygnus craft. The main payload consisted mostly of supplies for the ISS including food, water, spare parts and science experiments. Ancillary payloads included a test version of the Akryd satellites that Planetary Resources are planning to use to scout near Earth asteroids for mining and a bunch of nano Earth observation satellites by Planet Labs. The loss of this craft, whilst likely insured against loss of this nature, means that all of these projects will have their timelines set back significantly as the next Antares launch isn’t planned until sometime next year.
NASA and Orbital Sciences haven’t released any information yet about what caused the crash however from the video footage it appears that the malfunction started in the engines. The Antares rocket uses a modified version of the Russian AJ-26 engine who’s base design dates back to the 1960s when it was slated for use in the Russian Moon shot mission. The age of the design isn’t an inherently bad thing, as Orbital Sciences have shown the rockets were quite capable of putting things into orbit 4 times in the past, however the fact that Antares is the only rocket to use them does pose some concerns. The manufacturer of the engines have denied that their engines were to blame, citing that it was heavily modified by Aerojet prior to being used, however it’s still probably too early to rule anything in or out.
One thing I’ve seen some people pick up on is the “Engines at 108%” as an indication of their impending doom. The above 100% ratings typically come from the initial design specifications which aim to meet a certain power threshold. Many engines exceed this when they’re finally constructed and thus any power generated above the designed maximum is designated in this fashion. For most engines this isn’t a problem, the Shuttle routinely ran it’s engines at 110% during the initial stages of takeoff, so them being throttled over 100% during the ascent stage likely wasn’t an issue for the engines. We’ll know more when NASA and Orbital Sciences release the telemetry however.
Hopefully both Orbital Sciences and NASA can narrow down the cause of this crash quickly so it doesn’t affect any of the future CRS launches. Things like this are never good for the companies involved, especially when the launch system only has a handful of launches under its belt. The next few weeks will be telling for all involved as failures of this nature are rarely due to a single thing and are typically a culmination of a multitude of different factors leading up to the unfortunate, explosive demise of the craft.
It did make for a pretty decent light show, though.