Suborbital Rocket Carrying NASA Experiments Crashes off Wallops Island
The ATK-ALV X-1 rocket explodes after launch controllers issued a self-destruct command when the booster veered off course during an Aug. 22, 2008 launch from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 4:07 p.m. EDT.

WASHINGTON — An Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ALV-X1 suborbital rocket carrying two NASA hypersonic flight experiments was destroyed by range officials shortly after its Friday launch from the U.S. space agency's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's eastern shore.

NASA officials said no injuries or property damage were immediately reported following the launch failure. While most of the debris from the rocket is thought to have fallen into the Atlantic Ocean, NASA said it had received conflicting reports of debris being sighted on land.

"NASA is very disappointed in this failure but has directed its focus on protecting public safety and conducting a comprehensive investigation to identify the root cause," NASA said in a press release. "NASA is assembling a multidiscipline team, along with the rocket's maker Alliant Tech Systems, or ATK, of Salt Lake City, to begin the investigation promptly."

The launch occurred at 5:10 a.m. EDT (0810 GMT) after an extremely smooth countdown, mission managers said.  

Kent Rominger, vice president for advanced programs at ATK Space Systems, told reporters the experimental rocket lifted off as expected but veered off course, prompting range officials to trigger the vehicle command destruct safety mechanism 27 seconds into the flight. Rominger said the rocket had reached an altitude of approximately 11,000 feet to 12,000 feet (3,300 meters to 3,600 meters) by the time it was destroyed.

The launch marked the first and only flight of the ALV-X1, a rocket ATK built and paid for to test various proprietary technologies Rominger declined to identify. NASA's Hypersonic Boundary Layer Transition (HYBOLT) and the Sub-Orbital Aerodynamic Re-entry Experiment (SOAREX) payloads were on board the nearly 55-foot (17-meter) tall rocket.

The HYBOLT experiment, developed by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, was aimed at studying the effects of airflow and heating on hypersonic vehicles designed to fly at velocities faster than eight times the speed of sound.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California designed the SOAREX experiment, which consisted of three separate probes that were expected to be released after HYBOLT was jettisoned, then plummet back toward Earth to evaluate new techniques for spacecraft reentry.

One of the three probes belonged to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and carried prototype receiver and transmitter for use in tracking objects in ocean recovery, NASA officials said. There are currently no launch-worthy spares for the experiments, they added.

Juan Alonzo, director of NASA's fundamental aeronautics program, said the agency had spent about $17 million on this mission, including $11 million for the two payloads and the remaining $6 million for system integration, range fees and other expenses.

“We knew the risks of launching payloads on a first of a kind rocket and we acknowledged those from the beginning of the development of these payloads,” Alonzo said.

NASA is warning that the debris could be hazardous and that anybody who thinks they may have encountered rocket debris is advised not to touch it and to call the Wallops Emergency Operations center at 757-824-1300.

SPACE.com Senior Editor Tariq Malik contributed to this report from New York City.

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