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Northrop Grumman’s new rocket suffers small explosion during first big ignition test

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The company says the test was still a success

Image: YouTube/Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman’s first big test of its future OmegA rocket seems to have ended in a small explosion. Today, the company fired up the main engine on the rocket during a ground test in Utah. Toward the end of the test, part of the vehicle’s engine burst apart, sending pieces of hardware flying.

Today’s test is what is known as a static fire, when the engine of a rocket is ignited while the vehicle is held firmly to the ground. Northrop Grumman was conducting the very first static fire test of the OmegA’s first stage — the main body of the rocket with the primary engine attached to the end. The first stage was ignited horizontally at Northrop Grumman’s test facility in Promontory, Utah, with the goal of testing out all of the rocket’s systems as one functioning unit.

The ignition lasted for a full 122 seconds, sending flames and plumes of gas out into the Utah desert. But just before the firing shut off, the nozzle of the OmegA engine — the large cylindrical cone that the gas and fire flow through — seemingly exploded. Northrop Grumman claims that the test was still successful, despite “an observation noted at the very end of test,” involving the nozzle.

An artistic rendering of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket
Image: Northrop Grumman

“At the very end when the engine was tailing off, we observed the exit cone and maybe a portion of it doing something a little strange that we need to go further look into,” Kent Rominger, a former astronaut and Northrop Grumman’s vice president and capture lead for OmegA launch system, said during a press conference after the firing. When asked what would happen if this same failure occurred during a flight, Rominger said they’d need to look at the data some more. “What we saw was at the very end of the tail off — means you could have had a very normal, nominal thrust profile,” Rominger said. “But the truth is we need to go pull the data to analyze that.”

The OmegA is Northrop Grumman’s next-generation rocket, derived from the solid rocket boosters that were used to help launch the Space Shuttle. The company has been developing the rocket to launch payloads for the US government. In November, Northrop Grumman received $791.6 million from the US Air Force for further development of the OmegA, so that the rocket could potentially launch national security payloads in the future. Soon, the Air Force will select two companies to launch all of the military’s satellites between 2022 and 2026 — and Northrop Grumman is one of four companies that will be bidding for those contracts.

Rominger noted that anomalies like this one are the reason that companies test their rockets before they fly them. “We will go dig into this data and see what it tells us,” he said.