Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

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Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby scarecrovv » Wed Oct 29, 2014 6:36 am UTC

http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2014/10/antares-fails-shortly-after-launch/

Spoiler:
Orbital’s Antares fails seconds after launch
October 28, 2014 by William Graham and Chris Bergin

Orbital’s Antares launch vehicle – tasked with lofting the CRS-3 Cygnus to the International Space Station (ISS) – dramatically failed after around ten seconds of flight, exploding and falling back on to the launch center. There is extensive damage to the Wallops facility, although it has been confirmed all personnel are accounted for, with no injuries reported.

Antares failure:

Attempt 1 on Monday was scubbed due to boat in the Range Safety area. Boat did not depart the area in time to allow Antares to launch within her 10 minute window. *UPDATES For Attempt 1*

Attempt 2: Vehicle was recycled for a launch at a T-0 of 18:22 local time. Launch ended in failure after around six seconds. *UPDATES For Attempt 2*

The mission, Orbital CRS-3, was to mark the first flight of the upgraded Antares 130 rocket, which featured a more powerful second stage to accommodate larger future payloads.

As such, the upgrade would have had no relevance to the failure.

First flown in April 2013, the launch was the fifth flight of Orbital’s Antares rocket which was developed specifically to launch the Cygnus spacecraft. However, it was the first time a problem of any kind was seen during her career.

The Antares 130 made use of the same first stage as its predecessors. Of Ukrainian design and based loosely on the first stage of the Zenit rocket, the stage was developed by the Yuzhnoye Design Bureau.

It is powered by a pair of AJ26-58 engines, which are themselves reconditioned NK-33 engines left over from the Soviet Union’s cancelled N-1F rocket. The USSR abandoned the N-1F in the early 1970s after all four test flights of a prototype, the N-1, ended in failure.

One AJ-26 failed during a test stand incident in May of this year.

An interstage unit is used to connect the first and second stages and the payload fairing.

The Cygnus is a pressurised cargo spacecraft developed by Orbital Sciences under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.

In December 2008 it was awarded a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract to conduct eight operational resupply missions to the ISS.

The launch was to be the start of the third CRS mission.

The rocket was hosted at Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia.

It was the sixth launch from the pad, following the four previous Antares launches and the single launch of Space Services Incorporated’s Conestoga 1620 rocket in October 1995.

The Conestoga launch ended in failure with the rocket being destroyed by range safety after a hydraulic failure during first stage flight resulted in a loss of control.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is a commercial launch site which also includes Pad 0B, used by smaller solid-fuelled rockets. That pad has been used by Orbital for Minotaur I and V launches, along with Alliant Techsystems’ suborbital ALV X-1 launch in 2008, which was destroyed by range safety early in its mission.

In preparation for Tuesday launch, the Antares was rolled to its launch pad overnight Friday. Launch operations began with a call to stations three hours and fifty minutes ahead of liftoff, with propellant loading beginning around ninety minutes before launch.

During the final stages of the countdown, the spacecraft transferred onto internal power at around the fifteen minute mark. The rocket was switched to internal power ten minutes later, with the terminal count beginning around three minutes before liftoff. Two minutes before launch the first stage propellant tanks were pressurised.

When the countdown reached zero, the AJ-26 engines ignited with Antares lifting off 2.2 seconds later to begin its climb towards orbit.

However, after around ten seconds into ascent, the engine plume changed appearance, before the aft of the vehicle exploded. The rest of the vehicle – including Cygnus – fell back on to the launch pad area and exploded.

More information on the failure is expected over the coming hours.

The launch was to be the sixty-eighth orbital launch attempt of 2014 and the twentieth for the United States.

It was also planned to be the third and final Antares launch of the year, with Orbital’s next launch scheduled for 1 April next year, with another Antares 130 carrying the first Enhanced Cygnus mission to the ISS. This launch will clearly be delayed.

An investigation will be set up, with Orbital leading the effort to find the root cause of the failure. The public has been told not to touch or collect any debris that may wash up outside of the launch center.

The next Commercial Resupply Services mission is due to launch in early December, with SpaceX using a Dragon spacecraft to deliver cargo to the space station following launch atop a Falcon 9.

Before that Russia will conduct two missions to the outpost; on Wednesday Progress M-25M will lift off carrying cargo, while the manned Soyuz TMA-15M will transport three crew members to the station in late November.

Wednesday’s launch, which is scheduled for 07:09 UTC, will mark the first use of Russia’s Soyuz-2-1a rocket on a Progress launch or a mission to the ISS.

More will follow.

(Images: via L2’s Antares/Cygnus Section – Containing presentations, videos, a vast set of unreleased hi-res images, interactive high level updates and more, with additional images via Orbital and NASA).

(Click here: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/l2/ – to view how you can support NSF and access the best space flight content on the entire internet).


http://youtu.be/MZ0SgAU9LXI
http://youtu.be/NCWunnJXdm0
http://youtu.be/fPHkDc-CwoQ

Fortunately nobody was hurt, but it's still a very expensive and visible failure, and Antares may be grounded for quite a while. I have great sympathy for all the engineers at Orbital, and the people with payloads in the Cygnus capsule that was being launched.

There's no official word yet on what happened, but I love wild and unfounded speculation. Something clearly exploded at the bottom of the rocket, causing immediate loss of thrust. The best guess I've heard so far is that one of the first stage engines blew up. One of them did exactly that while being tested earlier this year, and these engines have been sitting in a warehouse for 40 years since they were originally built for the USSR's N-1 moon rocket, so perhaps corrosion or something similar took its toll.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Dauric » Wed Oct 29, 2014 9:14 am UTC

Probably just a badly designed engine. The USSR abandoned the engines after four previous launch prototypes 'failed'.

Kerbal Space Program has numerous jokes about finding engines and other components that were discarded as junk by the side of the road, but here in reality that's a lousy way to make a spaceship.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby PolakoVoador » Wed Oct 29, 2014 11:54 am UTC

Wait, did they really used decades old abandoned parts, or is this just an exageration?

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Zamfir » Wed Oct 29, 2014 12:13 pm UTC

Yes, no exaggeration. They were carefully checked and refurbished, and many components were replaced. But in the end, yes, they were 1970s abandoned rocket engines.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Dauric » Wed Oct 29, 2014 12:43 pm UTC

The big deal, in my opinion anyway, isn't the age of the components, if it was a good engine then proper refurbishment would have dealt with that. The problem is the engines, brand new, failed four out of four launch tests when the Soviets were using them. They're not rocket engines so much as engine-shaped bombs that might occsionally get a payload in to orbit.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby sardia » Wed Oct 29, 2014 1:53 pm UTC

Dauric wrote:The big deal, in my opinion anyway, isn't the age of the components, if it was a good engine then proper refurbishment would have dealt with that. The problem is the engines, brand new, failed four out of four launch tests when the Soviets were using them. They're not rocket engines so much as engine-shaped bombs that might occsionally get a payload in to orbit.

To be fair, all rockets are bombs that occasion get payloads into orbit. The issue is this one fails more than it should.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Dauric » Wed Oct 29, 2014 2:22 pm UTC

sardia wrote:
Dauric wrote:The big deal, in my opinion anyway, isn't the age of the components, if it was a good engine then proper refurbishment would have dealt with that. The problem is the engines, brand new, failed four out of four launch tests when the Soviets were using them. They're not rocket engines so much as engine-shaped bombs that might occsionally get a payload in to orbit.

To be fair, all rockets are bombs that occasion get payloads into orbit. The issue is this one fails more than it should.

No, not really. Bombs are designed to release the energy in their fuel in as short a period as possible, often though not always in as many directions as possible (shaped and cutting charges being the exception ). Rocket engines are designed to control the release of energy from their fuel source over a longer period. Bombs are designed to consume their components in that release if energy. Even a Nuclear Pulse (or Orion ) engine that uses nuclear bombs exploding behind a 'pusher plate' is supposed to survive its primary function.

Just because there's an enormous amount of energy being used in any particular system doesn't make it a bomb. It just means it can be very bomb-like when someone screws up.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby PolakoVoador » Wed Oct 29, 2014 2:52 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Yes, no exaggeration. They were carefully checked and refurbished, and many components were replaced. But in the end, yes, they were 1970s abandoned rocket engines.


Given the final result, I'm not so sure about the "carefully". But I agree with Dauric: if those old engines were already failing in the 70's, why the hell were they chosen? Cutting costs?

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Dauric » Wed Oct 29, 2014 3:06 pm UTC

PolakoVoador wrote:Given the final result, I'm not so sure about the "carefully". But I agree with Dauric: if those old engines were already failing in the 70's, why the hell were they chosen? Cutting costs?


At a guess: "Dude, I found this warehouse full of rocket motors that the owners will sell cheap. They need some work sure, but like even with the repair costs make 'em cheaper than new ones. We can totally make a profit using 'em...“

... But that's just my guess.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Mambrino » Wed Oct 29, 2014 4:37 pm UTC

PolakoVoador wrote:
Zamfir wrote:Yes, no exaggeration. They were carefully checked and refurbished, and many components were replaced. But in the end, yes, they were 1970s abandoned rocket engines.


Given the final result, I'm not so sure about the "carefully". But I agree with Dauric: if those old engines were already failing in the 70's, why the hell were they chosen? Cutting costs?


It appears that they are the same ones Soviets tried to build a moon rocket with.

The story about that I remember hearing about that attempt was that because they couldn't build engines for the Up Goer Five scale, they decided to opt for a "let's stack a lot of these smaller ones together" strategy, which turned out to be more complicated task than it might sound, so every test Didn't Go to Space very magnificently.

The test failures were blamed on the problems of getting dozens of small engines to work together, but as recently demonstrated by Orbital, maybe those smaller ones themselves weren't that good as anticipated even in a more simple configuration.

E: But that's just popular story. Maybe someone actually knowledgeable of rocket engineering would know better.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Derek » Wed Oct 29, 2014 7:24 pm UTC

Dauric wrote:
PolakoVoador wrote:Given the final result, I'm not so sure about the "carefully". But I agree with Dauric: if those old engines were already failing in the 70's, why the hell were they chosen? Cutting costs?


At a guess: "Dude, I found this warehouse full of rocket motors that the owners will sell cheap. They need some work sure, but like even with the repair costs make 'em cheaper than new ones. We can totally make a profit using 'em...“

... But that's just my guess.

To be fair, if no lives are on the line and the cost difference is significant enough, unreliable but cheap rockets may be better than reliable but expensive rockets. Obviously I don't have the relevant numbers, and there are PR issues as well, but it's not something to dismiss out of hand.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Dauric » Wed Oct 29, 2014 10:32 pm UTC

Derek wrote:To be fair, if no lives are on the line and the cost difference is significant enough, unreliable but cheap rockets may be better than reliable but expensive rockets. Obviously I don't have the relevant numbers, and there are PR issues as well, but it's not something to dismiss out of hand.


In the abstract hypothetical sure, with the caveats that A) you know the cheaper option is cheaper because it will fail more often and don't suffer delusions about its reliability because it was refurbished, and B) that you have a more reliable and expensive launch vehicle on hand for emergencies.

IIRC (on my cell at the moment so web browsing is sub-optimal), these engines now have 5 launch failures to three launch successes (only counting launches, not test firings which I don't have handy). This is not a good record of reliability. If you're losing one launch vehicle out of every ten it's conceivable (albeit barely) that the cost of that one failure (vehicle and payload) can be absorbed by a price increase on the other nine. When the launch vehicle's reliability is 50% or worse you would need to increase the price of a launch by double or more to not go broke with 'cheaper but less reliable'.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Thesh » Thu Oct 30, 2014 1:14 am UTC

Also, NASA apparently paid $1.9 billion for 8 launches. SpaceX's falcon seems to hs closer to $50-$100 million per launch. The whole thing doesn't make sense.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Zamfir » Thu Oct 30, 2014 6:48 am UTC

SpaxeX can be a bit, let's say, PRish about costs and prices. Their contract is 1.6 billion to deliver 20 tonnes to the ISS, Orbital's contract is 1.9 billion for the same. That's the CRS part, there is was also an earlier COTS part where SpaceX got 400 million to develop the machines, and Orbital got 300 million. The numbers are hard to compare, because there are differences between the missions, extra services rendered, potential for cost-plus services not yet included in these numbers, etc.

Also, SpaceX bid for the contract in the first round. The other contract winner was kicked out of the program a few years later, and then Orbital bid on that second place. It could be that this second bidding round had higher prices, because they had less time left to deliver than the bidders in the first round. NASA was in a bit of an embarrassment there, when their Free Market No More Space Monopolies program only had a single entrant in it...

All in all, it could be that SpaceX is offering a better price, but you would need a very deep understanding of the details to be sure.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Quercus » Thu Oct 30, 2014 11:58 am UTC

Dauric wrote:
In the abstract hypothetical sure, with the caveats that A) you know the cheaper option is cheaper because it will fail more often and don't suffer delusions about its reliability because it was refurbished, and B) that you have a more reliable and expensive launch vehicle on hand for emergencies.


To be fair, B exists - it's called Soyuz. That doesn't really help Orbital though.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby scarecrovv » Thu Oct 30, 2014 5:16 pm UTC

Additional speculation floating around the internet:

Moments before the explosion, it looks like the engine plume got much brighter and yellower. This apparently indicates a fuel rich mixture in the engine, which could indicate a blockage in the oxygen supply (possibly due to FOD - Foreign Object Debris). Since the turbopump is cooled by oxygen in the NK-33/AJ-26, perhaps it then overheated and blew up.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Quercus » Thu Oct 30, 2014 10:44 pm UTC

Scott Manley just posted a video on this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5shc52QLQ0

He's rather more complimentary towards the engines than I was expecting.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Dauric » Fri Oct 31, 2014 1:38 am UTC

Quercus wrote:Scott Manley just posted a video on this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5shc52QLQ0

He's rather more complimentary towards the engines than I was expecting.


Interesting video, thanks for linking that. It certainly has more historical perspective than the incident report.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby johnny_7713 » Fri Oct 31, 2014 8:27 am UTC

Quercus wrote:
Dauric wrote:
In the abstract hypothetical sure, with the caveats that A) you know the cheaper option is cheaper because it will fail more often and don't suffer delusions about its reliability because it was refurbished, and B) that you have a more reliable and expensive launch vehicle on hand for emergencies.


To be fair, B exists - it's called Soyuz. That doesn't really help Orbital though.


The problem with going with a cheaper, less reliable launcher (apart from damage to your launch infrastructure and the cost of failure investigations) is that space payloads are often one-offs. Obviously the food, water, and gasses being sent up to the astronauts are easy enough to replace, but the scientific instruments and experiments are often unique and take several person-years of (highly educated / expensive) manual labour to build. You need quite a discount before it's cheaper to build two instruments rather than just go with the reliable launcher.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby oxoiron » Fri Oct 31, 2014 5:10 pm UTC

Even putting cost aside, the time it takes to reattempt some projects makes another try unfeasible. I know a guy who ended up with an MS instead of a PhD because his zero-G crystal work was lost when Columbia disintegrated upon reentry. Even if the shuttles hadn't been grounded for the next two years, there is no way he would have been able to replicate that work.
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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby Derek » Fri Oct 31, 2014 10:05 pm UTC

Right on the heels of this, SpaceShip Two crashed during a test flight today.

One person killed, one person injured.

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Re: Orbital's third mission to the ISS ends with a kaboom

Postby jqubed » Tue Nov 04, 2014 4:18 am UTC

These are actually fairly impressive engines, not some Soviet junk that have been rusting in a warehouse for 40 years. I don't have enough posts to link yet (check back in a bit and I might have this updated), but go to YouTube and search for "the rockets that came in from the cold". It's a Channel 4 (UK) Equinox documentary that's very interesting, at least if you're into rockets (and I assume you are if you're on this thread).


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