Rocket contracted by NASA explodes into fireball. What happened?

NASA rocket explodes on launch
NASA rocket explodes on launch

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NASA rocket explodes on launch 01:33

Story highlights

  • The spacecraft burst into flames seconds after liftoff
  • Space station crew is in good shape even without resupply

(CNN)When a rocket contracted by NASA burst into flames seconds after liftoff, its supplies for the International Space Station disappeared in an orange fireball.

The explosion also swallowed several experiments, many of them from schools.
    The bad news: Everything in the rocket is gone.
    The good news: There are no deaths or injuries.

    What happened?

    The unmanned rocket exploded in midair Tuesday with loud booms echoing along the eastern Virginia coast.
    The Antares rocket by contractor Orbital Sciences launched at 6:22 p.m. ET from a facility along the Atlantic Ocean. It had about 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments.

    What was it carrying?

    The rocket was carrying various things, including spacewalk tools for the space station, flight equipment, food, books and computer resources for the crew.
    Its total cargo was 4,883 pounds (2215 kilograms).
    "It's not as tragic as losing a life associated with it and so, we're very happy to report that there were no injuries," said Frank Culbertson, an executive vice president at Orbital Sciences Corp. " That hardware, however, it's very important and very high value to the company and to our customers."
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    What kind of experiments were on board?

    The experiments varied widely, from student research to complicated medical studies.
    Some of the research highlights for the mission included:
    -- Experiments on pea shoot growth in space conducted by the Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Houston. Pea shoots have high vitamin and mineral content, making them a good food choice for long-duration space missions.
    -- Drain brain health study, which examines blood flow to help advance treatment for neurological problems faced by space station crew members.
    -- The meteor study, which analyzes video and images of the atmosphere to provide insight on meteoroid dust and development of planets.
    --Re-entry breakup recorder, which uses sensors to record data during reentry. That data are used to determine reentry hazards.
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    What happens next?

    Officials from NASA and Orbital hope to find out in the coming days.
    "What we know so far is pretty much what everybody saw on the video," Culbertson said. "The ascent stopped, there was some, let's say disassembly, of the first stage, and then it fell to Earth. ... We don't really have any early indications of exactly what might have failed, and we need some time to look at that."

    Where will the crew get supplies from?

    The crew aboard the station is not lacking when it comes to supplies.
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    "We have plenty of supplies onboard of the space station," said Mike Suffredini, program manager for NASA's International Space Station.
    "The crew has all the food, water and other consumables necessary to support them well into next year. I think if no other vehicle showed up, we can go all the way into the March time frame."
    If Orbital can't resupply the space station, others can. On Wednesday, a Russian Soyuz resupply spacecraft stocked with cargo and crew supplies launched from Kazakhstan. SpaceX, another private company, plans its fifth mission in December, including more supplies and a laser instrument to measure pollution, dust and other aspects of the atmosphere, according to NASA.
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    What happens to the debris?

    Stay away and do not touch, authorities warn.
    As officials launch an investigation into the explosion, they are warning curious onlookers to stay away from the accident site and avoid any desire to collect souvenirs.
    "The investigation will include evaluating the debris that we will find around the launch pad and everything associated with that," Culbertson said.
    "I do want to caution the public ... this is an accident site and it's a rocket and it had a lot of hazardous materials on board that people should not be looking for or wanting to collect souvenirs over. If you find anything that washes ashore in the local area or came down in your farm or in your yard, please make sure that you will call .... local authorities."
    Orbital will lead the investigation, along with the Federal Aviation Administration, with NASA assisting.
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    Will the crash delay future flights?

    It seems the pad is out of commission -- for now.
    "This is only pad certified for launching the Antares rocket," Culbertson said. " So, repairing it will be one of the highest priorities. We'll work very closely with the state of Virginia, with NASA to make sure that is done as quickly and as safely as possible."