Wallops launch pad damage

Until tonight, little news was released following last night’s destruction of the Orb-3 launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, VA. I can’t say that I was surprised, as they must have spent the entire day assessing damage, collecting debris, and  just starting to make sense of what happened before they released a statement.

Sure enough, tonight NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp (the company who built and launched the Antares launch vehicle and Cygnus cargo spacecraft) have both issued statements. But first, here’s what the launch pad looked like today:

 Wallops launch pad looking south after launch failure An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29 following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket Oct. 28. Image Credit:  NASA/Terry Zaperach
An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities on Oct. 29 following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket Oct. 28. Image Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

Wow. The first thing I notice is the charred blast which appears to have been largely directed toward the beach. That makes sense since the rocket was heading upward and slightly eastward at the time of the explosion. But take a look at that launch tower – it’s knocked to about a 45 degree angle. And two of the four lightning rod towers are completely gone. Still, to my untrained eye, most of the structure appears to be intact. But let’s hear it from Orbital themselves (emphasis mine):

The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary. However, until the facility is inspected in greater detail in the coming days, the full extent of necessary repairs or how long they will take to accomplish will not be known.

— Orbital Sciences Corp

That’s encouraging news. Pad 0A is the only pad certified to launch Antares so the sooner it can be repaired, the sooner the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport s can get back to supporting the International Space Station. Still, it’s far too early to tell the full extent of the damage. Still, the initial image released by NASA does seem to back up the statement:

Local news station WAVY released video of the launch complex and the surrounding area. They got some good shots of the launch pad and of the debris that had washed ashore:

WAVY Chopper 10 flies over NASA rocket launch debris. Credit: WAVY 10

Mind you, this is still very early in the investigation. It’s going to be months before there’s another rocket launch out of Wallops, to the space station or anywhere else. But we’ll take the encouraging news as we get it.

There’s nothing routine about going into space

I was on top of the roof of Smith Hall at Towson University with four of my physics students. We were looking toward the southeast, toward NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Antares Rocket on its flight to the International Space Station. Although I had NASA TV playing on my iPhone, our eyes were trained on the horizon. In my experience I’ve found that NASA TV is anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds delayed. So we started scrutinizing the horizon as soon as the clock read 6:22 pm. By my guess, we should see the rocket emerge from the horizon even as we were listening to the final countdown play out on the phone.

But no rocket appeared.

I then heard something that sounded like a crackling sound coming from my iPhone. I looked down at the screen and saw this:

Still from NASA TV showing Antares Orb-3 Explosion. Credit: NASA
Still from NASA TV showing Antares Orb-3 Explosion. Credit: NASA

I’ll spare what I said next, but suffice to say it was not the sort of thing a professor would normally say in front of his students.

Realizing there wasn’t going to be a rocket rising over the horizon, we went downstairs to the classroom. I put NASA TV on as the students filed in for the class that was to begin at 7pm. I had given my students the “homework” assignment of trying to spot the rocket’s flight over the horizon; a timely assignment as we had discussed the physics of rockets and space flight last week.

I started class by filling them in on what had happened. I explained what little we knew and what we didn’t yet know. Needles to say, there were a lot of questions: Was there anyone on-board? Was anyone near the launch pad? Will they be able to launch from there again? Will the astronauts aboard the International Space Station have enough food?

Thankfully, I could answer the most important question — nobody was on-board the spacecraft, nor was anyone anywhere near the launch pad. In fact, NASA was reporting that all personnel were safe and accounted for. Thank goodness.

The students got to see a perspective of spaceflight that they probably hadn’t considered before — this stuff is difficult, challenging, and dangerous. Rockets have to unleash a tremendous amount of fuel as fast and with as much energy as possible. Only then can the spacecraft accelerate forward in reaction to the controlled explosion raging underneath it.

It’s a lot harder than it looks.

After I got home, I watched the news conference and shared some reactions on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of people are upset tonight and understandably so. Many man-years of hard work and effort were lost tonight, including the spacecraft, the rocket, and most of an entire launch complex.

But now the investigation is underway. It’s tempting to speculate what might have been the cause, but I’ll refrain from doing so here. There is a lot of data that will need to be examined, including telemetry, video, and even the scrap paper used by the launch team.  And then there’s the physical debris that will need to be collected and scrutinized.

NASA and Orbital Sciences Corp. have their work cut out for them. But I’m also confident that they will find out what the problem is, correct it, and get back to flying again. In the meantime, I hope that my students and the public can use this as an opportunity to learn an important lesson:

There’s nothing routine about spaceflight.

Orb-3 to launch from Wallops Island, VA

Orbital Sciences Corp are getting ready to launch another Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus resupply ship to the International Space Station. The spacecraft is on-board the rocket, the rocket is on the pad and, as of this writing, is 98% GO for Monday night’s launch out of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. Launch is scheduled for 6:45pm EDT.

This photo shows the Antares rocket on the morning of Oct. 25 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s launch Pad-0A at Wallops. Credit: NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility/Joshua Murray
This photo shows the Antares rocket on the morning of Oct. 25 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s launch Pad-0A at Wallops. Credit: NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility/Joshua Murray

It’s looking like we’ll have clear skies here in Maryland and should be in for a pretty good show. As always, NASA and Orbital have provided some viewing guides to help you spot the launch.

Get the app & know where to look

There's an app for that, for both iOS and Android. Credit: NASA
There’s an app for that, for both iOS and Android. Credit: NASA

An even better resource is to get What’s Up at Wallops mobile app which will point you in the direction towards the launch pad at Wallops. The app is available for Android and Apple iOS.

While you’re at it, be sure to get the free NASA TV apps for Android and Apple iOS as well. Use these apps to monitor the countdown while you’re heading outside to look. Bear in mind that the streaming to your phone is usually delayed by up to a full minute so don’t count on it for true “real-time” information.

Make sure you can get a clear line of sight to the southeastern horizon. Since this is night launch, you should be able to spot a rapidly moving “star” emerging from the southeast and heading further toward the east. You should be able to see the first stage’s exhaust plume and maybe even see the first stage separation and second stage ignition. To give you a rough idea of the shape of the arc as seen from Maryland, here is a Google Earth mockup of the launch from Baltimore:

What the Antares launch will look like from Fells Point in Baltimore, MD. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.
What the Antares launch will look like from Fells Point in Baltimore, MD. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.

And for my Physics students, here is a simulation from Towson University:

Simulated launch track of Antares/Orb-3 from Towson, MD, looking toward the southeast. Image credit: Google
Simulated launch track of Antares/Orb-3 from Towson, MD, looking toward the southeast. Image credit: Google

And finally, here’s one for my friends & family in the Philly/Springfield PA area:

Simulated launch track of Antares/Orb-1 from Springfield, PA, looking toward the southeast. Image credit: Google
Simulated launch track of Antares/Orb-1 from Springfield, PA, looking toward the southeast. Image credit: Google

And here’s a map that shows the approximate amount of time that will pass after liftoff and when you should be able to start seeing the rocket:

Orb-3 Launch viewing map. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp
Orb-3 Launch viewing map. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp

Orbital Sciences Corp have some additional viewing maps for Orb-3 that show simulated views from Washington DC, Delaware, and Virginia. If you have Google Earth, you can download the .kmz file and view the launch path from your location. For some viewing tips, I’ll refer you to a previous post of a similar ISS resupply mission. Good luck and Go Antares/Cygnus!

Ambition

The European Space Agency put out an amazing film about space exploration that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen:

Credit: European Space Agency

Magnificent, isn’t it? With a vast wasteland before her, a young apprentice forms planets out of the rock and delivers water to them via comets. The result is a spectacular allegory of how water was delivered to Earth billions of years ago (albeit without the need for a creator to do so).

And all of this is taking place as the Rosetta spacecraft prepares to land a probe on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 12th.

While watching the making of Ambition, one of the filmmakers made this comment:

The actual campaign idea is very well targeted. But, shooting myself in the foot a bit, I’m very surprised you need something like this at all now. Mankind sends a probe into space to catch a comet and land on it, and we need a great director, film, and actors to convince people this is interesting.

Alas, that seems to be true. Nevertheless, the film is as amazing as the Rosetta mission is ambitious.

And yes, that is the guy that plays “Littlefinger” Baelish from Game of Thrones.

A scene from "Ambition" Credit: ESA
A scene from “Ambition” Credit: ESA