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Minotaur II+ missile explodes over California

men walking toward smoke
A Minotaur II+ missile exploded over California during a test flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base on Wednesday (July 6, 2022). Firefighters from several agencies contained a wildland fire that burned 150 acres as a result of falling debris. Image courtesy of the Vandenberg Fire Department.

The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (AFNWC) confirmed Thursday (July 7, 2022) that a Minotaur II+ rocket exploded seconds after lifting off from Test Pad-01 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The launch occurred at 11:01 p.m. PDT on Wednesday (July 6, 2022), and the vehicle exploded 11 seconds later, lighting up the sky with a fiery orange glow over the central California Coast.

No injuries from falling debris

The AFNWC issued a terse statement confirming the loss of the vehicle and reassuring the public no one was hurt during the explosion.

There were no injuries in the explosion and the debris was contained to the immediate vicinity of the launch pad.

Col. Kris Barcomb, Space Launch Delta 30 vice commander and launch decision authority for this launch, also gave an obligatory nod to the unit’s commitment to being prepared for such incidents:

We always have emergency response teams on standby prior to every launch. Safety is our priority at all times.

A review board will investigate the cause of the explosion.

Smoke and fire

Local TV station KEYT reported fallout from the explosion caused a minor fire on the VSFB test range:

Debris from the rocket rained down on the launch pad area causing a fire on North Base, producing smoke but no danger to the rest of the base.

The smoke and glow from the fire was visible in the nearby Lompoc and Santa Maria valleys, and Santa Barbara County firefighters were dispatched to a wildland fire on the base about two hours after the failed launch, according to reporting from Noozhawk.com:

The Minotaur Fire reportedly blackened at least 150 acres. Vandenberg officials did not provide information about whether the fire had been contained or other updates.

Firefighters appear to have spent the night containing the blaze before departing around 8 a.m. local time.

Making old nukes new again

The late-night launch was a test flight of the Minotaur II+ missile. The Minotaur II+ combines parts from decommissioned Minuteman ICBMs with the upper stage of the Minuteman III. This mission was testing a new reentry vehicle, the Air Force Times reported in its coverage of the explosion:

In this case, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center said the practice missile was carrying a Mark 21A reentry vehicle, or the part of a nuclear weapon that would hold a real warhead.

light arc night launch vandenberg
A Minotaur IV rocket launches on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010, from Space Launch Complex-8 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in this file photo. On Wednesday night (July 6, 2022), a Minotaur II+ rocket exploded seconds after liftoff from VSFB. Credit U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee

The failed Minotaur II+ did not contain a live nuclear warhead. Instead, the launch was one of a series of regular tests of the nation’s nuclear capabilities. The Air Force Times again:

Vandenberg routinely holds live tests of unarmed missile bodies — without a nuclear warhead inside — to check how the aging ICBMs are faring and to vet new technology.

The test launches also provide data for future missile designs.

Bottom line: A Minotaur II+ missile exploded seconds after its launch late Wednesday night (July 6, 2022) from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

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