WASHINGTON - An unmanned rocket owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded Tuesday in a giant fireball and plummeted back to Earth just seconds after launch on what was to be a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
"The Antares rocket suffered an accident shortly after lift-off," NASA mission control in Houston said, describing the event as a "catastrophic anomaly." After the countdown, the base of the tall, white rocket ignited on cue, then rose a short distance into the air before it suddenly exploded in a fiery blast six seconds later.
Enveloped in flames, the rocket collapsed to the ground, as a cloud of dark gray smoke rose from the wreckage.
Investigators swiftly secured the perimeter of the area and forbade any outside interviews of witnesses or staff, citing classified equipment that had been aboard the spacecraft.
As night fell, fires were seen burning at the coastal launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia where waves lapped at the shore.
It was unclear what caused the explosion, which occurred at 6:22 pm (2222 GMT).
"At this point it appears that the damage is limited to the facility," a commentator on NASA television said.
All personnel in the area were accounted for, and there were no injuries, the US space agency said. There was, however significant property damage.
NASA mission control said the accident occurred just after Orbital's unmanned Cygnus cargo ship blasted off toward ISS carrying 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of supplies for the six astronauts living at the research outpost.
It was the first nighttime launch of an Antares rocket, Orbital said.
Engineers said the countdown had gone smoothly, and there were no issues apparent with the machinery. The mission, known as CRS-3, was to be Orbital's fourth trip to the ISS, including an initial demonstration. Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for a total of eight supply missions.
The Cygnus craft, which is shaped like a massive beer keg, was to have remained berthed at the ISS for about five weeks.
After the US space shuttle programme ended in 2011, leaving no government programme to send humans to the space station, private companies raced to restore US access.
SpaceX's Dragon was the first commercial spacecraft to make a supply journey there in 2010.