A privately operated SpaceX rocket has broken up in midair soon after it was launched from Cape Canaveral. The craft was making a routine supply mission to the International Space Station when the explosion occurred.
Despite the good weather forecast, all did not go as planned for the Falcon 9 spacecraft on its Florida launch on Sunday. It lost contact just two minutes and 19 seconds into its journey. Live images broadcast from SpaceX's webcast and NASA television then showed billowing smoke, followed by bits of the rocket falling from the sky.
"The vehicle has broken up," said NASA commentator George Diller. "At this point it is not clear to the launch team exactly what happened."
The head of SpaceX, technology tycoon Elon Musk, said the rocket had "experienced a problem," writing on Twitter that he "will provide more info as soon as we review the data."
The unmanned Dragon cargo ship was carrying around 1,800 kilograms (4,000 pounds) of gear, and was expected to reach the International Space Station (ISS) in two days' time. SpaceX had then planned to attempt a controlled, upright landing of its rocket on an ocean platform, with the aim of making rockets as reusable as airplanes.
After five weeks it was to return with crew supplies, hardware, science experiments and trash on board.
The ISS currently has three men living on it, including Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and American astronaut Scott Kelly, who have been there since March. "Sadly failed. Space is hard," Kelly posted on Twitter, along with a picture of the Florida coastline as seen from space. The crew fortunately has around four months' worth of food and supplies.
SpaceX holds several contracts with NASA, including the station cargo runs and commercial communications satellites. Last month it won US Air Force certification to fly military and national security missions. It also hopes to modify its Dragon capsule to eventually fly astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX, along with Orbital Sciences, have taken over US deliveries to the ISS after NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in2011.
Launching rockets is an expensive and risky business. Last month, an unmanned Russian craft caught fire as it entered the atmosphere. Russia says it plans to launch a replacement capsule from Kazakhstan on Friday. In October last year, competitor Orbital Sciences also lost a rocket in an explosion.
This craft had been carrying replacements for items lost in previous failed shipments. It was the company's 19th Falcon rocket launch since 2010.
Earlier in the day, station commander Gennady Padalka set a new world record for the longest cumulative amount of time spent in space, at 804 days. It includes 12,848 orbits of Earth, a total distance of 546,969,192 kilometers (339,870,899 miles).
an/ng (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)