Orbital Science’s Antares rocket exploded just seconds after liftoff yesterday. The rocket was carrying science experiments and supplies for the International Space Station. The mission was unmanned, and nobody on the ground was injured either, according to the public video feed from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The combined value of the destroyed rocket and cargo vessel, a Cygnus craft built by NASA, is $200 million.
As many commenters have noted, space is hard. It’s unfortunate and costly when launches fail, but not unprecedented. We’re republishing this gallery of unmanned NASA mission failures as a reminder of some recent history. Some of these examples even include fixes! Although we’re guessing the experiments Antares was carrying won’t be so easily repaired.
By the way, NASA is now collecting debris from the explosion to help engineers understand what went wrong. Those who live near Wallops and see what may be Antares debris can call NASA’s incident response team at (757) 824-1295. People shouldn’t touch the debris, which can be contaminated with toxic rocket fuel or other chemicals.
View the gallery below.
10. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) Satellite
The Mission: NASA intended the OCO to provide an orbiting platform from which scientists would be able to look at how carbon dioxide moved through the atmosphere. Hyped as a space-down look at global warming, the OCO was supposed to help researchers figure out climate change. The Problem: Sadly, the OCO never made it into orbit, as the case containing the satellite failed to separate from the rocket during launch, leading the whole assembly to crash into the ocean 17 minutes after lift off.
9. Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology (DART) Spacecraft
The Mission: Upset with the expense and risk of launching the shuttle every time a satellite needed maintenance, NASA created the DART to show that a robotic satellite could dock with other satellites. DART was supposed to autonomously navigate towards, and then rendezvous with, an existing communications satellite. The Problem: And did it ever rendezvous! The computer controlling DART incorrectly estimated the distance between the two satellites, causing DART to bump right into the other satellite! DART then used up all of its fuel, eventually crashing into the ocean.
8. NASA Helios
The Mission: Not actually a space probe, Helios was the last in a line of high altitude, solar powered atmospheric research platforms designed to fly in the upper atmosphere. The Problem: While the previous aircrafts in the series succeeded in breaking a number of flight records, Helios just couldn’t hack it. About 30 minutes after taking off, Helios hit some powerful wind shear and crashed into the Pacific.
7. The Hubble Space Telescope
The Mission: The first in a series of space telescopes, the Hubble would allow astronomers to look at the stars without atmospheric interference. This would, and eventually did, provide the most detailed images of the distant universe ever produced. The Problem: Much like the nerds who designed the telescope, Hubble had a vision problem. When grinding the original camera lens, engineers failed to compensate for the minute shape change the lens would undergo when moved into a zero gravity environment. The solution? Glasses. Once a corrective lens was added, the Hubble was able to look deep into the universe.
The Mission: Designed to catch pieces of the sun itself, Genesis flew into space to collect solar winds in specially designed sheets of gold, diamond and sapphire. By studying actual pieces of the sun, scientists hoped to learn about the original composition of the solar system. The Problem: It wasn’t the grabbing a piece of the sun that proved to be a problem, but the bringing it back. The satellite was too delicate to simply land, so NASA planned to catch the capsule in mid air by hooking its parachute with a helicopter. Except the parachute never deployed, and the satellite slammed into the Utah desert. Luckily, those wafers were built tough, and scientists managed to recover some of the samples for testing.
5. Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS)
The Mission: A series of classified surveillance satellites, SBIRS was supposed to answer the Air Force’s need for tracking ballistic missile launches. Consisting of high and low orbit satellites, SBIRS is scheduled to go on line next year. The Problem: Ignoring the $10 billion cost overrun for the project, and the possibility that it won’t work at all, one of the first SBIRS satellites shutdown only seven seconds after reaching Earth Orbit. The satellite’s safety mechanism malfunctioned, putting the satellite into safe mode, and reducing it to what the then Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force called a auseless ice cube.a
4. The Mars Polar Lander (MPL)
The Mission: The Mars Polar Lander was part of an extensive 1998 push to study the red planet. The program consisted of a soil probe, a lander, and a satellite. As the lander, the MPL was supposed to study the climate and surface of Mars. The Problem: No one really knows what happened to the MPL. The spacecraft successfully reached Mars, but NASA never made contact with the MPL. Anything from a faulty transmitter to a complete crash to interference from Marvin could have caused the failure. NASA still hopes to one day find the MPL and figure out what went wrong.
3. Deep Space 2
The Mission: Sent to Mars on the same spacecraft as the Mars Polar Lander, the Deep Space 2 was a penetrator, designed to burrow into the Martian soil and collect data on water and chemical composition. The Problem: Much like the MPL, the fate of the Deep Space 2 remains a mystery. Both probes were built under the afaster, better, cheapera rubric that dominated NASA in the 1990s. Eventually judged as a failure, the ethos tasked NASA with generating a greater number of less expensive projects rather than the small number of large projects that dominated most of the agency’s history. While NASA produced probes that were plenty cheap, many of them weren’t as fast or better as hoped.
2. The Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO)
The Mission: The brains of the 1998 Mars Missions, NASA intended the MCO to serve the dual function of studying the Martian atmosphere and relaying radio signals from the two surface probes. The Problem: In one of the all time great engineering gaffs, NASA subcontractor Lockheed Martin created thruster software that used Imperial units, not the metric units used by NASA. NASA did not know this, never converted from pounds to newtons, and the probe eventually hit the atmosphere at the wrong angle and burned up.
The Mission: NOAA-19 was the last in a series of weather satellites that monitor atmospheric conditions, follow volcanic eruptions and conduct climate research. The Problem: There have been satellites lost in space, those that have exploded on the runway, and then there’s this. During final servicing at a Lockheed-Martin facility in California, engineers failed to check if the satellite was bolted down before moving it, and accidentally knocked the multi-million dollar piece of equipment onto the ground, breaking a number of components. Whoops!