The site of this week's spectacular Antares rocket explosion in Virginia appears to have escaped significant damage, and some of the payloads from the commercial Cygnus capsule may be recoverable, Orbital Sciences Corp. said Thursday.
Orbital built the Antares as well as the Cygnus, and is heading the investigation into Tuesday's blow-up. The explosion occurred just seconds after the Antares was launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility under the terms of Orbital's $1.9 billion contract with NASA to resupply the International Space Station.
The two-stage rocket was to have sent the robotic Cygnus cargo capsule to the space station with 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of supplies, experiments and equipment.
No one was injured in the blast.
In Thursday's status update, Orbital said a preliminary review of flight telemetry showed that no problems cropped up before launch. Something went wrong with the rocket's first stage about 15 seconds after ignition, however. "The vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground, impacting near, but not on, the launch pad," Orbital said.
A range safety official at Wallops activated the rocket's self-destruct system before the Antares hit the ground, Orbital said.
A "significant amount of debris" remained on the site, including evidence that should help investigators determine the cause of the failure, Orbital said. The safety team reported that the launch site itself avoided major damage, but some damage was done to the piping between the launch mount and Wallops' storage vessels.
"Some of the Cygnus cargo has also been found and will be retrieved as soon as we have clearance to do so to see if any survived intact," Orbital said.
Concerns over rocket engines
The damage survey is expected to last several more days. Orbital Chairman and CEO David Thompson said during a teleconference on Wednesday that he thought investigators would determine the likeliest causes of the rocket failure in a matter of "days, not weeks," but that it might take longer to zero in on the root cause.
The prime suspects include the Antares' first-stage AJ-26 rocket engines, which make use of Soviet-era Russian hardware. One of the engines exploded during a ground test in May. Orbital has been looking around for alternatives to the AJ-26 engine for more than a year — and "recently selected a different main propulsion system for a future use by Antares," Thompson said.
Despite those past concerns, officials at Orbital and NASA have cautioned that it was too early to blame the engines.
No disruption to station
NASA also has stressed that the space station program can draw upon other robotic spaceships for resupply — including Russian Progress craft (one of which arrived at the station on Wednesday), Japanese transports and the Dragon capsules operated by California-based SpaceX. The station has stockpiled months' worth of supplies, and the crew is not in danger.
Many of the payloads aboard the lost Cygnus were of a scientific nature, including a package that held 18 student experiments; a meteor-detecting device; a fleet of Earth-observing nanosatellites built by Planet Labs; and a test bed for Planetary Resources' miniaturized space telescopes, known as the A3.
In most cases, replacement payloads could be flown on future missions, and the people behind those payloads said they were undeterred.
"We appreciate the support and well-wishes we've had pouring in from around the world, and want to remind everyone that the A3 was just a robot," Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources' chief asteroid miner, said in a blog post. "We can and are building more, and we will live to fly another day."
Phil Larson, senior adviser for space and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, also took a forward-looking stance.
"Tuesday's launch attempt will not deter from the work to expand the already-successful capability to launch cargo, and soon astronauts, from American shores to the International Space Station," Larson told NBC News in an email.