Antares rocket failure originated near its engines

An investigation is underway after Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket exploded just after launch last week, and the rocket’s engines are looking more and more suspicious.

Data sent from the rocket during launch indicate that Antares experienced a failure 15 seconds into its flight in its first stage — the bottom area of the rocket that houses its engines, Orbital Sciences wrote on its website. It was no longer able to propel itself upward, so the self-destruct command was triggered.

The sections on an Antares rocket. Graphic by Orbital Sciences

The sections on an Antares rocket. Graphic by Orbital Sciences

The Antares rocket’s two engines were immediately of interest in the crash because they were originally built for the Soviet Union’s space program. Orbital Sciences already planned to replace them two years from now, but is now considering accelerating that process. It has not outright stated whether or not the engines were behind the rocket’s failure.

Orbital Sciences also announced the creation of a board that will look into the crash. The board’s seven members hail from Orbital Sciences and NASA, while two overseers work for the Federal Aviation Administration. The group will establish a timeline of what exactly went wrong and develop a “fault tree.”

The launchpad on Wallops Island in Virginia, where Antares took off and then crashed. Photo by NASA/Terry Zaperach.

The launchpad on Wallops Island in Virginia, where Antares took off and then crashed. Photo by NASA/Terry Zaperach.

Officials have been working since the crash to examine the site where Antares went down on Wallops Island in Virginia. The launch pad is mostly undamaged, but some piping that attaches it to storage areas was not as lucky.

The team is also collecting parts of the propulsion system to use as evidence in the crash, plus any cargo that survived. It has already located the wreckage of the Cygnus spacecraft, which Orbital Sciences uses to carry cargo on the final leg to the International Space Station.