Space is Hard: Antares rocket failure is a setback for space and student sciences
Wednesday, October 29, 2014, 12:28 PM - Although rocket launches seem almost routine now, the dramatic failure of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket launch on Tuesday night is a fresh reminder to us that 'space is hard'. Thankfully nobody was injured in the accident, but the explosion unfortunately claimed some very cool science that was bound for the International Space Station.
If you talk to anyone who designs, builds or launches missions to space, or even advocates for missions off of our planet, there's one adage you'll hear quite often from them - "Space is hard."
A reminder that space is hard: https://t.co/nttx9x9wkZ— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 29, 2014
What caused this accident?
In a statement released shortly after the incident, Orbital Sciences' executive vice president, Frank Culbertson said: "It is far too early to know the details of what happened. As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation's space program."
Although a test of the one of the refurbished Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AJ26 engines Orbital uses on the Antares rocket failed back in May - causing "extensive damage to the engine," according to an Orbital statement - there are plenty of things that can go wrong during a rocket launch. As it is, it will be some time before we know the exact cause of the failure, as NASA and Orbital Sciences will have to pore over all the information the rocket was sending to mission control, as well as examine the wreckage, to see if they can figure out what happened. When they do discover the reason, it will at least help advance our knowledge of spaceflight, as we always end up learning from these kinds of failures.
What was the rocket carrying?
In addition to basic supplies - food and equipment - for the space station and its crew, this delivery to the ISS was also carrying new science experiments.
One, the Meteor Composition Determination, or Meteor for short, was going to take high-resolution images of meteors streaking through Earth's upper atmosphere, in order to help us understand the composition of the meteoroids that cause these flashes of light in our night sky.
Another, called Drain Brain, was to examine the effects of microgravity on the flow of blood between the body and the brain. There are hopes that the special collar involved in the study, a strain-gauge plethysmograph, can be useful as a non-invasive way to monitor blood flow in a patient's body.
Also included were studies of how pea shoots grow in the zero-g environment of the space station. These highly nutritious plants grow in just weeks here on Earth, and if this growth was comparable or even better in orbit, they could become a staple food for long-duration spaceflights.
There is a local Canadian connection here too, as an experiment involving crystal growth was being sent up on this launch by four boys from Albert McGowan Park Elementary School, in Kamloops, B.C. According to the NCESSE's Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, this experiment was at the top of the list of 54 different student experiments chosen from over 1,400 different entries, to make the journey to the ISS.
As the principle investigators - Jordan Brown, Hunter Galbraith, Kieren O’Neil and Ryan Watson - wrote in their proposal:
For our project we want to learn how microgravity affects the growth of crystals. Some of the questions we are wondering about are: How is crystal growth different in microgravity than on Earth? Are the crystals the same shape when they form in microgravity as on Earth? Do the crystals grow to the same size (mass) in the same time? (Do they grow at the same speed?) Do the crystals grow to the same size (volume) in the same time? (Do they grow at the same speed?) Is the concentration of the crystals the same? Where will crystals grow in the tube? Is diffusion of the high concentration to the low concentration solution the same in microgravity and on Earth?
We believe this is important because we can learn more about how fluids act and how crystals (precipitates) form in microgravity. The advantage of understanding if a solid has a different structure in microgravity would be that we could create solids with different properties and be able to make unique materials. It may also help us to move forward with a better understanding of how fluid mixing and crystal formation work in space.
According to CBC News, the boys were shocked by the rocket explosion, but they took it pretty well afterward.
"It was just a bit of shock at first, of course, but they recovered," said their teacher, Sharmane Baerg, in the interview. "And then they started laughing ... there were no injuries, so that's really good."
What about the ISS Crew?
According to NASA, the crew is in no danger, as they have plenty of supplies on board. Also, a Russian Progress spacecraft is launching today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which will be carrying its own load of food and equipment for the station. Therefore, while it will be an inconvenience, and they will have one less 'garbage drop' scheduled (as the Cygnus cargo craft was to be loaded with garbage for burnup on reentry in December), the space station crew is well-stocked and able to carry on in their mission.
What's next for Orbital Sciences?
Although this is certainly a setback for the private spaceflight company, these are the risks of spaceflight, and they are prepared for these types of incidences. They are undoubtedly investigating the failure even now, and they have pledged to replace the lost cargo. Their contract with NASA continues and they will have more launches to the space station in the future.