By | January 25, 2023
An image of the Centaur V anomaly that occurred March 29 during testing of the Vulcan rocket's upper stage at Marshall Space Flight Center.

An image of the Centaur V anomaly that occurred March 29 during testing of the Vulcan rocket's upper stage at Marshall Space Flight Center.
Magnify / An image of the Centaur V anomaly that occurred March 29 during testing of the Vulcan rocket’s upper stage at Marshall Space Flight Center.

Anonymous source

10:30 PM ET Update: Several hours after this article was published, Ars obtained a still image of the Centaur V anomaly that occurred on March 29 during testing of the Vulcan rocket’s upper stage. The photo shows the anomie — a fireball of hydrogen igniting — to the left of Blue Origin’s rocket engine test stand.

After the author posted this photo on Twitter, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno offered a more detailed assessment of the anomaly. “Most of what you see is insulation and smaller pieces from the test rig. A piece of the hydrogen tank dome, about a foot square, ended up a few feet away. The test article is still inside the rig and largely intact, which will greatly aid the investigation “, Bruno said via Twitter.

Original post: On the evening of March 29, at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, United Launch Alliance began pressurizing the upper part of its new Vulcan rocket. But then, suddenly, something went wrong with this Centaur overshoot.

Shortly after the incident, to his credit, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno was quick to acknowledge on Twitter that something had happened: “Keeping you updated: During Qual testing of the Centaur V structure article at MSFC, the hardware experienced an anomaly.”

Unpacking this tweet a bit, Bruno says that during qualification testing — the process of testing rocket motors and stages on the ground to determine their behavior in flight-like conditions — the Centaur stage had a problem. More than a week later, however, there are more questions than answers about the accident.

A mushroom cloud

Multiple sources confirmed to Ars that there was a large explosion that Wednesday night, prompting several emergency responders to the scene at NASA’s field center where the company has a test bench. No one was injured, but the accident created dramatic images.

“A column of burning, clear hydrogen shot up in a mushroom cloud that dwarfed the test bench,” a source said. “Their test item is definitely more than just ‘damaged’.”

The anomaly was captured on video cameras operated by Blue Origin, which is restoring a nearby test bed. Blue Origin, located about 100 meters from the United Launch Alliance facility, has invested more than $100 million in NASA’s legacy Test Stand 4670 for acceptance testing of its BE-4 and BE-3U rocket engines.

A Blue Origin source confirmed that a mushroom cloud formed from the anomaly. Afterwards, United Launch Alliance asked Blue Origin to remove the explosive video footage from the company’s computers, which Blue Origin agreed to do.

(Note: After publishing this article, when asked about the video deletion, Bruno tweeted that this “didn’t happen”. However, two sources told Ars that after the incident, United Launch Alliance asked Blue Origin to “secure” the video for its investigation. Blue Origin did so, but also removed the video from its own internal servers and reserved access only to a few company officials).

The loss of the Centaur stage raises questions about ULA’s schedule for the debut launch of its long-awaited heavy-lift Vulcan rocket. For a couple of years, ULA has said it was waiting for Blue Origin to deliver BE-4 engines for the rocket’s first stage. The fact that ULA was still doing qualification testing of the Centaur upper stage suggests that there was also a pace for the new launch vehicle.

Although this Centaur V crossover is based on a heritage design, the new version still has significant upgrades. Earlier, Bruno said Centaur V could last 40 percent longer in flight and has two and a half times more energy than the Centaur upper stage ULA is currently flying.

Another unanswered question concerns exactly what Centaur stage ULA tested in Alabama. Was it a fully flight-like stage to be used for a future mission? Or was it more of a prototype stage used for development testing, which might be more susceptible to failure? ULA does not want to comment on this.

Vulcan’s debut

Publicly, ULA has set a target date of May 4 for the debut launch of the Vulcan rocket. But last month, even before the centaur anomaly occurred, Ars reported that date was already likely to slip into the summer based on the company’s internal timelines. The effect of the Centaur anomaly on Vulcan’s schedule is still unclear.

“We are conducting an investigation and will fly when we believe it is safe to launch,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told Ars this week. “We will not know the implications of the launch date until we receive more information from the investigation.”

ULA has asked the primary customer for the Cert-1 mission, Astrobotic, to refrain from sending its Peregrine lander to the launch site. The lunar lander remains at the company’s facilities in Pittsburgh, awaiting the green light from the rocket company.

After the accident, Bruno speculated on Twitter that it was “highly unlikely” to have consequences for the Centaur V upper stage currently in Florida and planned for use on Vulcan’s Cert-1 mission. However, any decision on this will have to wait until ULA completes its accident investigation and consults with the US Space Force, which will ultimately certify the rocket for national security launch.

Time is running out for ULA to complete development of the Vulcan and fly two certification missions this year. This would allow the vehicle to begin flying national security payloads for the Space Force. ULA had hoped to fly its first national security mission in 2023, but now that seems virtually impossible.

#photo #reveals #extent #Centaur #anomaly #explosion #Updated #Ars #Technica

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *