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NASA releases wild high-res images of last year's Orbital rocket explosion

This week, NASA posted new high-resolution photos to Flickr of last year's Orbital Sciences rocket failure, showing the nighttime launch pad explosion in even greater detail. The images chronicle the short ascent and fiery disintegration of Orbital's Antares rocket, which blew up just seconds after taking off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on October 28th, 2014.

At the time, the Antares was transporting Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft filled with food and supplies to the International Space Station. The launch was part of NASA's Commercial Cargo Resupply Program, an initiative that tasks private companies with performing a series of cargo resupply missions to the ISS. This launch was going to be Orbital's third resupply trip to the station. SpaceX also holds a contract with NASA through the program — and also suffered a failure during one of its resupply launches.

There's some debate over what actually caused the accident

There's some debate over what actually caused the accident. Orbital and NASA both agree that there was an explosion in one of the engine's turbopumps — the spaghetti-like tubes that aid combustion. Yet no one seems to know what caused that explosion. Orbital seems to think there was a defect in the turbopumps, stemming from how the engines were made. If so, that would place the blame on the engines' manufacturer, Aerojet Rocketdyne. However, NASA says it could be a problem with the engine design in general — or it may not be the fault of the engines at all. Foreign objects made of titanium and silicon were found in the engines at the crash site, which could indicate that Orbital didn't assemble the rocket correctly.

Regardless of the actual cause, Orbital opted to get rid of the Aerojet engines in the Antares and will replace them with ones built by Russian company NPO Energomash. The updated Antares won't be ready to launch until next year, though, and Orbital still needs to perform four resupply missions for NASA through the end of 2016. So in the meantime, the company will launch two resupply missions with its Cygnus cargo spacecraft atop an Atlas V, the premiere rocket manufactured by the United Launch Alliance. The first of those flights is scheduled for December 3rd.


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