Authorities have started investigating the explosion of an unmanned US rocket moments after lift-off from a Virginia launch pad, destroying supplies and equipment bound for the International Space Station.
The 14-story Antares rocket, built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp, blasted off from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island at 6:22 p.m. on Tuesday but burst into flames moments later. It was the first disaster since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration turned to private operators to run cargo to the space station, according to Reuters.
Witnesses said the explosion looked like a “ball of fire” and shook buildings for miles. No one was hurt.
“The explosion was a big boom — we could also feel it here, just the ground shaking,” said Shirley Lapole, assistant education coordinator at the NASA Visitors Center, who was watching the launch from about seven miles away.
The rocket carried a Cygnus cargo ship with more than 5,000 pounds of equipment and supplies for the station, a US$100 billion research laboratory owned and operated by 15 nations that orbits about 260 miles above Earth.
The area around the launch facility was cordoned off on Wednesday.
The Cygnus mission was non-military but the craft included classified cryptographic equipment, requiring heightened security, said Mike Pinkston, Orbital’s Antares program manager.
Pieces of cloth-like debris were found scattered across Chincoteague Island, just northeast of Wallops Island and about 100 miles north of Norfolk on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Investigators will need days to determine where the failure began, said Frank Culbertson, an Orbital vice president and mission director, who placed the value of the rocket and cargo ship at US$200 million. The exact cause may take longer to ascertain and correcting the problem could take months, he said.
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