Wednesday, October 29, 2014

NASA Expresses Confidence In Orbital Sciences

Last updated: October 29, 2014 12:06 pm

Rocket explosion: Nasa expresses confidence in Orbital Sciences

A privately operated cargo flight to the International Space Station blew up on launch in Virginia on Tuesday evening, dealing a significant blow to corporate efforts to develop their share of the lucrative market launching government cargoes.
Orbital Sciences Corporation’s unmanned Antares rocket, carrying 5,000 pounds of supplies to the station, took off from its launch pad at Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility at 6.22pm. But footage of the launch showed there was an explosion shortly after the rocket cleared the launch tower, and the rocket fell back to earth in a massive fireball.

There was no immediate explanation on the cause of the failure of what would have been Orbital’s third flight to the station. Shortly after lift-off, the vehicle suffered a “catastrophic failure”, Orbital said in a statement.
The ISS’s Twitter feed said there had been an “accident” six seconds after lift-off.
No one was hurt in the crash but Nasa warned local residents not to touch any unusual debris that washed up on local beaches.
Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice-president, expressed his “disappointment” that the company had not been able to fulfil its obligations to the ISS.
“This is a tough evening for the entire Orbital team,” he said. He promised to investigate the incident thoroughly, and to return quickly to flight with the Antares rocket.
William Gerstenmaier, Nasa’s associate administrator of human exploration and operations, said the space agency was “disappointed” with the mission failure but that the crew of the ISS were in “no danger.” He said they had enough food and other supplies onboard for four to six months.
He also said he had confidence in the private contractor. “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,” he said.
But the incident is bound to raise new concerns about the risks of entrusting government cargoes to private companies operating relatively new rocket systems.
The explosion follows a separate incident involving a test flight of a rocket by SpaceX, another start-up launch operator, in August. The SpaceX vehicle automatically blew itself up after malfunctioning.
Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, called it a “severe blow” to both Orbital and the Obama administration’s policy of relying on commercial launch providers to sustain the ISS.
“Coming on the heels of a SpaceX launch failure in August, it raises basic questions about the viability of the Nasa’s resupply strategy for the space station,” Mr Thompson said.
Both Orbital and SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, have operated some resupply flights to the ISS. The competition is meant to bring down the cost of launching cargo into space compared with the traditional route of having Nasa, the US government’s space agency, undertake the flights itself.
SpaceX has been particularly aggressive about entering the private launch market and would like to take some of the business of launching sensitive national security satellites that is presently a monopoly of United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
SpaceX criticises the cost of ULA’s launches – which it puts as high as $400m each. But ULA points out that in has never lost any of the 85 satellites it has launched.
Orbital had reported preparations for the launch as proceeding normally. However, the flight had to be postponed from Monday evening after a small boat strayed into the maritime exclusion area meant to keep the public safe in the event the rocket crashes into the sea.
Antares is Orbital’s largest rocket, intended to carry large payloads into the low-earth orbit.
Among the items lost as a result of the explosion are a number of experiments, including one meant to study meteors’ entry into the earth’s atmosphere from space for the first time.
Additional reporting by Mark Odell in London
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