Engine failure likely led to Antares rocket explosion

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Engine Failure Likely Led to Antares Rocket Explosion


Investigators believe they know what caused the massive failure and explosion of the Antares rocket just seconds after it lifted off a Virginia launch pad.

The CEO of Orbital Sciences spoke with investors in a conference call Wednesday and focused on the main engines launching the resupply mission.

David Thompson, CEO of Orbital Sciences said, "Current evidence strongly suggests that one of the two AJ26 main engines that powered Antares first stage failed about 15 seconds after ignition."

Orbital Sciences now believes a turbopump that pushes fuel into the engine's combustion chamber failed, meaning the rocket didn't have enough momentum to continue climbing high or fast enough.

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Engine failure likely led to Antares rocket explosion
People who came to watch the launch walk away after an unmanned rocket owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded (background) October 28, 2014 just seconds after lift-off from Wallops Island, Virginia, on what was to be a resupply mission to the International Space Station. 'The Antares rocket suffered an accident shortly after lift-off,' NASA mission control in Houston said, describing the blast as a 'catastrophic anomaly.' MANDATORY CREDIT: AFP PHOTO / Steve ALEXANDER (Photo credit should read STEVE ALEXANDER/AFP/Getty Images)
An unmanned rocket owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation explodes October 28, 2014 just seconds after launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, on what was to be a resupply mission to the International Space Station. 'The Antares rocket suffered an accident shortly after lift-off,' NASA mission control in Houston said, describing the blast as a 'catastrophic anomaly.' MANDATORY CREDIT: AFP PHOTO / Steve ALEXANDER (Photo credit should read STEVE ALEXANDER/AFP/Getty Images)
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA - OCTOBER 28: In this handout provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 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 at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on October 28, 2014 on Wallops Island, Virginia. William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Michael Suffredini, NASA's International Space Station Program Manager also participated in the press conference via phone. Cygnus was on its way to rendezvous with the space station. The Antares rocket lifted off to start its third resupply mission to the International Space Station, but suffered a catastrophic anomaly shortly after lift off at 6:22 p.m. EDT. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA - OCTOBER 28: In this handout provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, participates via phone, in a press conference with Rachel Kraft, NASA public affairs officer, (L), Frank Culbertson, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Advanced Program Group at Orbital Sciences Corp., (C), and Bill Wrobel, director of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, after a mishap occurred during the launch of the Antares rocket, with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft aboard at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on October 28, 2014 on Wallops Island, Virginia. William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Michael Suffredini, NASA's International Space Station Program Manager also participated in the press conference via phone. Cygnus was on its way to rendezvous with the space station. The Antares rocket lifted off to start its third resupply mission to the International Space Station, but suffered a catastrophic anomaly shortly after lift off at 6:22 p.m. EDT. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA - OCTOBER 28: In this handout provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 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 at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on October 28, 2014 on Wallops Island, Virginia. William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Michael Suffredini, NASA's International Space Station Program Manager also participated in the press conference via phone. Cygnus was on its way to rendezvous with the space station. The Antares rocket lifted off to start its third resupply mission to the International Space Station, but suffered a catastrophic anomaly shortly after lift off at 6:22 p.m. EDT. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
WALLOPS ISLAND, VA - OCTOBER 28: In this handout provided by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 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 at NASA Wallops Flight Facility on October 28, 2014 on Wallops Island, Virginia. William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and Michael Suffredini, NASA's International Space Station Program Manager also participated in the press conference via phone. Cygnus was on its way to rendezvous with the space station. The Antares rocket lifted off to start its third resupply mission to the International Space Station, but suffered a catastrophic anomaly shortly after lift off at 6:22 p.m. EDT. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
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When that happened and it became clear Antares would not make it into orbit, Orbital Sciences has said officials engaged the system to destroy the rest of the rocket to avoid more damage or a crash on populated areas.

Calling the engine "unreliable," CEO David Thompson said Orbital Sciences plans to continue with it's nearly $2 billion contract with NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The AJ26 engine will no longer be used for launch.

A Wells Fargo analyst who participated in the conference call asked Thompson if it was fair to say the flaw that caused the explosion couldn't have been detected during testing, but was instead a fundamental issue of the engine's reliability in an actual launch.

Thompson responded, "I would say that's a good assessment."

Orbital Sciences, NASA and Aerojet conducted this test of an AJ26 engine in 2010 back when the Antares project was known at Taurus II. The rocket engines are repurposed from Soviet moon missions back in the '70s.

The New York Times notes Orbital Sciences is already attempting to get supplies to the International Space Station by contracting with other companies with available rockets.

The Times wrote the first flight of a revised Antares program won't happen until 2016.

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