Friday, October 31, 2014

Antares Rocket Powered by Refurbished Soviet Engines - US Blame game

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus spacecraft onboard suffers a catastrophic anomaly moments after launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A, Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. 

Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The private American rocket that exploded shortly after liftoff Tuesday evening (Oct. 28) was powered partly by an engine built to get cosmonauts to the moon in the 1960s.

Orbital Sciences Corp.'s two-stage Antares rocket crashed in a fiery heap just seconds after launching from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Tuesday, ending an attempted cargo run to the International Space Station just seconds after it began.

Antares' first stage uses two AJ26 engines, which are refurbished variants of the NK-33 built by the Soviet Union for its ill-fated N-1 moon rocket during the height of the space race.

While it's unclear at the moment whether or not the AJ26 played any role in Tuesday's mishap, the engines' age and provenance has already stirred debate, as well as a bit of criticism.

An AJ26 engine is placed in a test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center. 

Credit: NASA

Some of the criticism long predates this week's accident.

In 2012, for example, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk bad-mouthed the Antares mission "honestly, it sounds like the punch line to a joke."

"It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the '60s," Musk told Wired magazine. "I don’t mean their design is from the '60s, I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the '60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere."

This Aerial view of a launch pad shows the aftermath of an Antares rocket explosion. Image taken on Oct. 29, 2014.

Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

While the fiery Antares rocket explosion did not destroy the launch pad or fuel tanks at the launch complex at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia, "some repairs will be necessary," according to Orbital representatives. NASA officials have found that some support buildings at Wallops have blown-out windows and doors, and a sounding rocket launcher and other buildings near the pad have severe damage.

The initial assessment also showed that the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods at the pad sustained the most damage, according to NASA.

It will take multiple weeks to completely assess the areas affected by the launch mishap, space agency officials added.

Musk fails to mention that Russian rocket technology and success pre-dates NASA and has continued to be the most reliable and widely used power packages in the space industry.

The care and maintenance along with the addition of US-manufactured sensors and components all adding to the complexity of the crash investigation.

Initial statements declare that the launch was aborted and that the control team had initiated a 'self-destruct' command to prevent the launch vehicle becoming a destructive threat.

We await further information and clarity from Orbital Science and its mission team, meantime speculation will continue to grow and competitors will fuel the fire of doubt for their own benefit.

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