Orbital Antares Rocket Lifts Off Two Years After Disastrous Explosion

NASA/Bill Ingalls

Almost two years ago, a rocket blew up in one of the most spectacular explosions you’re likely to ever see.

The rocket, called Antares, belonged to a private company called Orbital ATK. Since then, they’ve had to postpone further launches of the rocket while the problems were ironed out.

That was until last night, when Antares gloriously returned to flight, with a stunning nighttime launch from the space coast in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch took place at 7.45pm EDT yesterday (00.45am BST this morning), taking 2,300 kilograms (5,100 pounds) of vital supplies and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

That was all carried by the Cygnus spacecraft, which launched on top of the rocket. This is an unmanned spacecraft built under contract with NASA to resupply the ISS, alongside SpaceX's Dragon capsule.

Since the rocket explosion in 2014, Cygnus has flown twice on another rocket, the Atlas V, built by the United Launch Alliance (ULA). Antares, though, is Orbital’s own vehicle, so the goal was always to return to flying Cygnus on this rocket.

"We've returned to our home base and home vehicle and we're going to continue to fly out of here on Antares for the foreseeable future,” Frank Culbertson, the Vice President of Orbital ATK, said in a post-launch news conference.

Watch a replay of the launch above

This particular rocket, the Antares 230, is an upgraded version of the previous Antares 130, using a new engine developed in Russia called the RD-181. There had been rumors Russia would be dropped as the engine supplier after the explosion in 2014, but the relationship was renewed.

Cygnus is scheduled to arrive at the ISS at 6am EDT (11am BST) this Sunday, October 23, where it will be grabbed by the station's robotic arm operated by Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi and American Kate Rubins.

Among some of the experiments on board the spacecraft, one of the most interesting is Cool Flames. This will study how some fuel can continue to burn even when a fire appears to have gone out.

Another, called Saffire II, will be performed when the spacecraft eventually makes its way back to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere (Cygnus does not have the ability to return to Earth like SpaceX’s Dragon). A fire will be started in a box on the spacecraft, to see how it behaves in microgravity.

And an experiment called Lighting Effects will seek to see how changing the light bulbs on the ISS can affect the health of the crew. In particular, it will see if light-emitting diodes (LEDs) can improve the sleep patterns of the crew, which may have implications for people on Earth.

Mostly, though, it’s just good to see Antares flying again. And it was a beautiful launch to boot.

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