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Minotaur rocket explodes shortly after launching on test mission for US military

The test launch was in support of a re-entry vehicle for a U.S. ICBM program under development, called the LGM-35A Sentinel, which is illustrated here.
The test launch was in support of a re-entry vehicle for a U.S. ICBM program under development, called the LGM-35A Sentinel, which is illustrated here. (Image credit: Air Force)

A Minotaur II+ rocket exploded just after launching on a test mission from California's Vandenberg Space Force Base early Thursday morning (July 7).

The explosion occurred about 11 seconds after liftoff, which took place at 2:01 a.m. EDT (0601 GMT; 11:01 p.m. local California time on July 6), according to a short press release (opens in new tab) issued by Vandenberg officials.

No injuries were reported, and "the debris was contained to the immediate vicinity of the launch pad," the release stated, adding that an investigative review board will determine the cause.

"We always have emergency response teams on standby prior to every launch," Col. Kris Barcomb, Space Launch Delta 30 vice commander and the decision authority for this launch, added in the statement. "Safety is our priority at all times."

Related: What is the U.S. Space Force?

A threat-representative ICBM target launches from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands March 25, 2019 in this long-exposure photo. It was successfully intercepted by two ground-based interceptor missiles launched from California.

A threat-representative ICBM target launches from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands on March 25, 2019, in this long-exposure photo. It was successfully intercepted by two ground-based interceptor missiles launched from California. (Image credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

The Minotaur II+ launch was intended to support the development of a re-entry vehicle for the U.S. Air Force known as Mk21A, which will eventually ride on an LGM-35A Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is also in the works, according to CBS News (opens in new tab).

"The test launch was intended to demonstrate preliminary design concepts and relevant technologies in operationally realistic environments, according to Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center officials," CBS reported.

The Sentinel program is intended to replace the "aging" Minuteman III ICBM, according to the center, which is helming the project.

"Although certain components and subsystems have been upgraded since the Minuteman III ICBM system first became operational in the early 1970s, most of the system's fundamental infrastructure still uses the original equipment," Nuclear Weapons Center officials wrote in a description of the Sentinel ICBM program (opens in new tab).

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile accelerates toward a test range near Guam on March 27, 2015 after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile accelerates toward a test range near Guam on March 27, 2015 after launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base (now Vandenberg Space Force Base) in California. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Joe Davila)

Once ready, the new Sentinel ICBMs will take the place of 400 Minuteman III ICBMs stationed at Air Force bases in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, Air Force officials said.

The plan is to upgrade launch facilities, missile alert and communication systems, and other infrastructure and technology to "support the new Sentinel weapon system," the description added. "The Minuteman III ICBMs will be decommissioned, which requires demilitarization and disposal activities."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.