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The Antares rocket exploded shortly after launch.

The Antares rocket exploded shortly after launch.


The things it carried: Rocket explosion destroys numerous science experiments

A suite of scientific experiments was lost yesterday evening when the Antares rocket headed to the International Space Station (ISS) exploded 6 seconds after liftoff. The NASA-commissioned rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., exploded on the launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, incinerating the scientific experiments on board as well as 748 kg of supplies for the six astronauts stationed on the ISS.

Among the losses was an experiment designed by students at Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Houston, Texas, to determine the optimal lighting conditions for growing pea shoots in outer space. The plants’ rapid growth and high concentration of nutrients make them promising food sources for extended missions in space.

Another casualty was an experiment using a high-resolution camera to observe the chemical composition of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere. Meteors are relatively rare and difficult to observe from the ground; one way to solve that problem is to hunt for them from the top down. The camera, developed by the Southwest Research Institute, would have peered out of a window on the ISS to record the light spectrum of the rocks as they streaked through Earth’s atmosphere.

Research into solar sails also experienced a setback due to the explosion. Solar sails are incredibly thin sheets of reflective materials that can harness pressure differences in space caused by the sun to propel a spacecraft without burning fuel. The experiment was intended to test different materials for their suitability as solar sails.

Another experiment dubbed Brain Drain would’ve fitted astronauts on the ISS with high-tech collars to monitor the blood flow in their necks. Astronauts often report headaches and other neurological disorders during their time in space, and scientists from the Italian Space Agency had hoped to learn how blood drains from the brain back toward the heart in the absence of gravity.

The explosion also destroyed 18 experiments by students from across the United States and Canada. The experiments ranged from an investigation of the effectiveness of composting in space to observing how mosquitoes develop in microgravity.