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Unmanned rocket bound for International Space Station explodes

An Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket laden with supplies for the ISS suffers a fiery first-stage engine failure before falling and exploding at a NASA flight facility.

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An Orbital Sciences-made Antares rocket exploded at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia after an apparent failed takeoff Tuesday. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

A rocket carrying an unmanned spacecraft bound for the International Space Station erupted in flames after takeoff Tuesday.

The launch vehicle, dubbed Antares, exploded at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia after takeoff at 3:22 p.m. PT. The rocket appeared to suffer a fiery first-stage engine failure six seconds after liftoff before halting midair and falling back to Earth.

No personnel were in the area and only the launch site suffered damage from the explosion, NASA confirmed. A 1,400 square-mile launch hazard area was cleared prior to liftoff in the event of a rocket failure.

The Antares rocket was made by Orbital Sciences Corp. and carried an Orbital-made Cygnus CRS-3 spacecraft ferrying about 5,000 pounds for resupplying the International Space Station, the heaviest payload to date for the Virginia-based rocket company. The spacecraft was supposed to dock with the ISS on November 2, when the six-person crew of Expedition 41 was to unload the supplies.

Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA, signed in 2008, as part of the organization's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services. Today's launch would have marked the third Orbital cargo mission out of a total of eight launches under its NASA contract. Orbital has supplied NASA with launch vehicles for more than two decades with its Pegasus and Minotaur rockets, many iterations of which have 100 percent launch success records.

The Antares launch was originally scheduled for Monday evening, but NASA nixed it after a 26-foot sailboat entered the hazard area and multiple spotter plane passes and radar aircraft signals received no response. The boat was later found to have only one passenger who did not have access to radio equipment. The launch was rescheduled for Tuesday evening.

NASA is preparing to host a press conference. Orbital has declared contingency, meaning the launch team was not tracking any issues prior to launch and will be investigating the source of the failure.

Frank Culbertson, Orbital's executive vice president and general manager of its Advanced Programs Group, issued a statement late Tuesday:

It is far too early to know the details of what happened. As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation's space program.

Update at 5:10 p.m. PT: Added statement from Orbital's Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson.