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US Air Force’s experimental rocket spirals out of control after launching from Hawaii

US Air Force’s experimental rocket spirals out of control after launching from Hawaii

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Space and Missile Systems Center/US Air Force

A small, experimental rocket meant to carry 13 communication satellites into space for the Department of Defense failed just one minute after launching from Hawaii last night, according to the US Air Force. Video footage of the event shows the rocket spiraling out of control as it falls back down to Earth, leaving a crooked contrail in its wake. This was the first flight ever for this kind of vehicle — known as a Super Strypi rocket — as well as the first rocket launch attempt from the Hawaiian Islands.

The launch was part of the US Air Force's Operationally Responsive Space (ORS)-4 mission. The ORS missions are aimed at testing out smaller, alternative launch vehicles, to see if they can get government satellites into space for much lower costs and with much shorter planning times. This particular mission was meant to see if the Super Strypi could meet those criteria.

The rocket spirals out of control

"The ORS-4 mission on an experimental Super Strypi launch vehicle failed in mid-flight after liftoff at 5:45 PM Hawaii Standard Time (7:45 PM PST/10:45 PM EST) today from the Pacific Missile Range Facility off Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. Additional information will be released as it becomes available," the Air Force said in a statement.

The Super Strypi rocket is a repurposed version of a Cold War era sounding rocket made by the US Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratory; it was used as part of nuclear testing programs in the 1960s, according to Space News. For the ORS mission, the Department of Defense worked with Sandia and the University of Hawaii’s Space Flight Laboratory to significantly redesign the rocket to get into space. Aerojet Rocketdyne also provided the three new rocket motors used in the Super Strypi, and manufactured the core stages of the vehicle. The Super Strypi is launched via a rail system, which guides the rocket as it takes off.

Altogether the vehicle is estimated to cost $15 to $16 million per launch. That's a good deal, considering the average cost of launching an Atlas V rocket — the military's primary option for getting satellites into space — is around $225 million.

The vehicle is estimated to cost $15 to $16 million per launch

But it looks like the Super Strypi may have a long way to go before it can save the Air Force that much money. Even before this launch failure, the ORS-4 mission was fraught with delays; the launch had originally been set for October 2013, but was pushed back to November 2014 and then to January 2015, according to Space News, before finally settling on the November 3rd date. Additionally, the Air Force didn't seem to have much confidence that the rocket would succeed. Col. John Anttonen, the former director of the Air Force’s ORS Office, told Space News that the government was moving forward with the launch despite knowing about a design flaw in one of the rocket's motors.

"For us, the mission is to get the data on the flight," Anttonen told Space News in March. "We feel we can do that on this mission all the way up through the first stage. We’re pretty confident we’ll be able to demonstrate what we’re looking for." Anttonen said the main objective of ORS-4 was to see if the mission time could be compressed into 21 days. There's been no word yet on whether or not the Air Force succeeded in that area.


An animation of the rocket spiraling.