AN EXPLOSION which destroyed an unmanned rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS) also badly damaged the launch pad which could be out of action for months.
Investigators began trawling through the wreckage of the Antares amid speculation its 40-year-old Soviet-designed engines may have malfunctioned and that potential faults with the system may have been known already.
The rocket, which turned into a fireball six seconds after launch, was powered by the same propulsion units which reportedly blew up during a ground test in May.
The cause of that failure was never made public by US manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne, though it claimed to have identified the problem.
Footage of the Antares exploding on Tuesday night shocked the world.
Though nobody was on board, the fireball brought back memories of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster in 1986, when the ship exploded after launch and killed all seven on board on live TV.
The Antares was due to carry nearly 5,000lb of supplies to the six astronauts aboard the ISS on its attached Cygnus cargo vessel.
Anticipation was high and much of the US eastern seaboard was expected to watch the rocket as it flew into the sky from the base in Wallops Island, Virginia. On the live footage, the announcer could be heard saying: “We have lift off on Antares” but things quickly went awry. The commentator said, “That main engine is at 108 per cent” and there was an explosion which stalled the rocket in mid-air.
Another much larger explosion followed, sending white and yellow streaks into the night sky amid an enormous fireball.
Amateur footage shot by a member of the public shows children screaming in fear as the blast makes a firework-like noise followed by a booming sound.
The Antares was launched by Orbital Sciences Corp, an American company that was working under a £1.2 billion contract from Nasa. It was the third resupply mission to the ISS after two successful trips.
Orbital executive vice-president Frank Culbertson said: “It is far too early to know the details of what happened. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident.”
Commentators said the AJ-26 engines will be one of the first lines of inquiry.
The units are modified Russian-built engines that were originally used for the ill-fated N-1 moon rocket which the Soviets built in the 1960s to try and win the space race.
Aerojet bought them in the 1990s and, though they have been refurbished, one was reportedly destroyed in May during a ground test explosion at Nasa’s Stennis Space Centre in Mississippi.
Nasa was urging residents in the region of the explosion to contact them if they discovered any debris.