After spending roughly eleven months independently investigating Orbital ATK’s botched Antares rocket launch, NASA has officially released an 11-page report detailing its findings on the spacecraft’s explosion. Conducted in earnest by twelve investigators (as well as 31 other NASA employees), the examination began a short time after the incident in November of 2014. Among the reported findings, the agency points to an explosion in one of the rocket’s main AJ26 engines, specifically in the engine’s liquid oxygen turbopump, as the catalyst for Orbital ATK’s failed mission.
As seen in the video above, very little went according to plan during the launch for Orbital ATK as its Orb-3 spacecraft succumbed to a fiery explosion mere seconds after takeoff. The rocket, which took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility located in Virginia, was intended for use as a cargo resupply mission headed towards the International Space Station. Luckily for everyone at Orbital ATK and NASA, the Orb-3 was an unmanned spacecraft so no staff were reported injured or killed during the explosion.
Antares launch pad damage after the Orb-3’s explosion
By interviewing essential mission personnel and analyzing telemetry data and documents, NASA was able to piece together an accurate timeline of what exactly went wrong during the launch. Though it concluded which part of the rocket exploded, NASA wasn’t quick to point the finger at one specific reason why the chain reaction started. Unlike Orbital ATK (which believes it’s highly likely that a faulty, 40-year-old Soviet turbopump design led to the crash), NASA admitted to not having the ability to determine a single reason for the failure after concluding its analysis.
“The IRT was not able to isolate a single technical root cause for the E15 (the liquid oxygen turbopump) fire and explosion,” the report explains before listing three credible root causes which could’ve potentially led to the blast. “The IRT determined that all three of these technical root causes would need to be addressed as part of any return flight efforts for Antares.”
Though it refrained from crowning a bonafide culprit, NASA’s three potential causes don’t veer wildly from Orbital ATK’s assessment of a faulty turbopump design. The agency pointed to an inadequate design of the AJ26 liquid oxygen turbopump (which featured a sensitive thrust bearing), the possibility of foreign debris getting into the E15 turbopump engine area, and a workmanship or manufacturing defect of the liquid oxygen turbopump as the three likely causes.
“The thorough work of the NASA team is essential to ensure the agency continues to learn and improve,” associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate William Gerstenmaier said in a press release. “This unfortunate event provides a tremendous opportunity for the industry and NASA team to improve vehicle development, acquisition, and operations.”
During NASA’s investigation, Orbital ATK announced its intent to test new engines to replace the AJ26 for future Antares missions. In light of this announcement, the IRT also included several recommendations for supporting the planned testing, and to help reduce risk for Antares’ return to operation. NASA also made it a point to acknowledge Orbital ATK’s acceptance of responsibility for the mission failure and that “good working relationships” exist between Orbital ATK and NASA. That last part is incredibly paramount as the Antares rocket aims to resume mission activity at the Wallops Flight Facility in 2016.