An unmanned supply rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS) has exploded moments after launch.

The Antares rocket exploded mid-air, seconds after launching from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, US.

No-one was injured in the blast, which is the first explosion since NASA outsourced the development of supply rockets to private companies.

Antares was a 14-storey rocket built by Orbital Sciences Corp and was carrying nearly 2.2 tonnes of supplies to astronauts aboard the ISS when it exploded.

Spectators caught the explosion on video from a safe distance of a few miles from the launch pad.

After the crash, fires raged at the launch site before being brought under control by fire fighters.

Former ISS commander Chris Hadfield offered his sympathies:

“I’m very sorry to see the Antares rocket launch failure. Spaceflight is hard; glad that no one was hurt. Now comes the time to sort out why and the effects on our Space Station crew. Water, oxygen & food are critical consumables, but they should have lots for now. Next resupply launch is a Russian Progress ship tomorrow, and a SpaceX Dragon in December.”

William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, commented:

“While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences’ third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful today, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today’s mishap. The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies.

“Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.”

An investigation team is examining the data from the launch to determine the cause of the malfunction.

One line of enquiry will likely focus on the Aerojet AJ-26 engines which use kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOX) to propel the rocket away from the pad. The engine are modified Soviet-built NK-33 engines, which were developed for the Russian N-1 Moon rocket, a programme which was cancelled in 1976. The rockets have been refurbished to meet modern standards, but questions will be raised about their safety as one blew up in ground testing earlier this year.

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