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.
There was a long running joke that the International Space Station existed only as a place for the shuttle to go. Whilst that joke ignores the fact that the ISS wasn’t just an American creation it was true that the Shuttle really only had a single destination for the last decade or so of its life. Still it was pretty damn good at its job, both in terms of delivering payloads and its ability to ferry large crews and its retirement left a large hole in launch capabilities that is still yet to be filled. There have been many alternatives popping up however and the second fully privately funded one, the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, made its launch debut last week.
In terms of capabilities the Cygnus is very similar to the Russian Progress craft with the initial versions able to deliver a payload of 2,000kg to the ISS. This is scheduled to be bumped up to 2,700kg after the first 3 vehicles as the craft and its associated launcher will be upgraded, giving it more significantly more interior volume as well. Much like all the other ISS cargo craft it does not have an automated docking capability and needs to be captured by CANADARM2 before being guided to one of the station’s ports. Additionally the Cygnus does not have any capability to reboost the ISS whilst it is docked, something which seems to be uniquely confined to the ATV (although the Progress can do it if required), and does not have any down range capability meaning it burns up on re-entry.
The first Cygnus craft launched late last week after a technical glitch caused a one day delay whilst a fix was developed. The launch itself was trouble free and it spent the weekend catching up to the ISS for a scheduled rendezvous today. Unfortunately whilst the Cygnus was attempting to establish a direct data link with the ISS another glitch was encountered forcing it to abort the current docking attempt. This will delay any further attempts for another couple days due to the orbital mechanics involved but this will give Orbital Sciences enough time to create and test a fix so that the next attempt should be successful.
Just like SpaceX before it Orbital Sciences has a pretty aggressive schedule for successive flights with the next flight lined up for December this year and 3 to follow in 2014. Considering their pedigree with multiple launch systems under their belt this is somewhat expected but it’s still quite amazing to see just how quickly these private companies can move when compared to previous governmental based efforts. It will be interesting to see if they ever adapt the Cygnus to be a human rated craft as whilst they’ve never launched people before they’ve got much of the expertise needed to do so.
It’s great to see that NASA’s COTS program is doing so well, producing results that many believed would be impossible. Whilst they still haven’t bridged the launch capability gap that the Shuttle has left behind they’ve already demonstrated one major part of it and I know it won’t be long before the crewed capability is restored. I’m hopeful that this will enable NASA to continue focusing on the real envelope pushing ideas to further our capabilities in space, leaving the more rudimentary aspects of it to the private market. The future of private space travel is looking brighter by the day and I’m glad Orbital Sciences, with their incredible pedigree of delivering on space projects, has come along for the ride.