Following a disturbing explosion that swept over NASA’s test facility in Alabama, United Launch Alliance (ULA) doesn’t expect its Vulcan rocket to fly until the summer.
The heavy-lift rocket was being prepped for its highly-anticipated inaugural flight, which was scheduled for May 4. On March 29, ULA was pressurizing the upper stage of the Vulcan rocket when a spark triggered a fireball at the test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
The company’s chief executive, Tory Bruno, recently shared a closer look at the explosion on Twitter. During a back and forth with his followers on the social media website, Bruno shared that Vulcan’s earliest estimated launch date would be “June/July.”
Bruno suggested that an accumulation of hydrogen inside the test rig was the cause of the explosion, and that the fuel was likely triggered by an ignition source that set it ablaze. The company seemed uncertain of the amount of damage caused by the fireball. “Don’t know yet whether the leak was in the test article or the test rig,” he wrote on Twitter. The “test article” being the rocket itself.
The fully expendable 202-foot-tall (62-meter) rocket has been in development since 2014 and was originally meant to launch for the first time in 2020 and then again in 2022. ULA was waiting on the delivery of two BE-4 engines built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which came more than four years late.
ULA’s two-stage Vulcan Centaur rocket is designed to lift 27.2 metric tons (60,000 pounds) to low Earth orbit and 6.5 metric tons (14,300 pounds) to geosynchronous orbit (by comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 can carry 22.8 metric tons to LEO.) The rocket is meant to replace ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which have been in use for the past two decades.
For its inaugural flight, Vulcan is set to deliver Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, which, on behalf of NASA, will attempt to deliver 11 payloads to the surface of the Moon. The rocket will also attempt to deliver the first two Amazon Kuiper internet satellites to low Earth orbit, which are owned by Blue Origin’s Bezos.
The rocket that has already suffered multiple delays will have to wait a little while longer before it can get off the ground, with a tentative launch date in the summer still seemingly uncertain.
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