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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket explosion: What we know and don't know

Posted by Jason Davis

01-09-2016 10:32 CDT

Topics: commercial spaceflight, mission status

This morning, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40. This is currently the only active East coast pad SpaceX uses to launch its Falcon 9 rockets. It's located on Cape Canaveral, but not part of NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and SpaceX leases the pad from the U.S. Air Force.

There were multiple reports of an explosion just after 9:00 a.m. EDT. SpaceX issued a statement on Twitter confirming the accident at 10:42 a.m., and has since posted this followup:

"At approximately 9:07 am ET, during a standard pre-launch static fire test for the AMOS-6 mission, there was an anomoly at SpaceX's Cape Canaveral Space launch Complex 40 resulting in loss of the vehicle.

The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and there were no injuries.

We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be posted as they become available."

The U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing, which oversees launch activities for America's Eastern rocket range, had this to say:

"At approximately 9:07 a.m. this morning an explosion occurred at launch complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Initial reports indicated that there were no casualties and has been no threat to public safety. CCAFS Emergency Management is providing the initial on-scene response. Roadblocks will be set up in and around CCAFS, so we ask that you avoid the entrance to the Air Force Station until further notice. We will provide updates as they become available."

A dramatic video of the accident was captured by U.S. Launch Report and posted to YouTube:

Falcon 9 explosion

U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing

Falcon 9 explosion

The payload

The payload was Amos-6, a communications satellite bound for geostationary orbit high above the Earth, where satellites match their orbital period with Earth's rotational rate to remain fixed above a specific point on the ground.

Amos-6 was owned by the Israeli company Spacecom, and slated to be positioned over Africa. One of the satellite's users was Facebook, which is attempting to bring broadband services to remote regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The accident

The launch window for the Falcon 9 was scheduled to open at 3 a.m. EDT on Saturday, Sept. 3. SpaceX regularly conducts a "static fire" test a couple days before launch, during which the rocket remains held to the pad while the engines fire up for a few seconds. Today's accident originated near the rocket's upper stage oxygen tank, which was being pressurized in preparation for the firing. It remains unclear whether the accident was caused by the rocket, the launch pad infrastructure or a combination of both.

This is not the first time SpaceX has conducted a static fire with the payload already integrated at the top of the rocket. Previous static fires with the company's International Space Station-bound Dragon capsule have been done with Dragon already aboard.

Effects

When rockets explode on or near their launch pad, significant damage can be caused to ground infrastructure. SpaceX will have to troubleshoot what happened and convince its customers—which include NASA—that it has fixed the problem. It will also have to repair any damaged ground equipment. 

NASA says this will not affect the launch of NASA's OSIRIS-REx on Sept. 8. SpaceX's pad is located just a mile and a half from Space Launch Complex 41, where the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket holding OSIRIS-REx is housed. However, the Atlas V would have been protected within the complex's Vertical Integration Facillity at the time of the explosion.

 
See other posts from September 2016

 

Or read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight, mission status

Comments:

Teddy: 09/01/2016 08:47 CDT

How will this disaster effect the launch of LightSail?

GaryChurch: 09/01/2016 09:06 CDT

The sooner the NewSpace movement self-destructs the better it will be for space exploration. The pernicious influence of Ayn-Rand-in-Space-libertarian Musk worshipers has done inestimable damage. Two strikes for the hobby rocket show there is no cheap and you get what you pay for.

ScienceNotFiction: 09/02/2016 01:05 CDT

Space exploration should always be a concerted effort among the international community. Each launch failure by any country means lost on time, money and human effort. Why spend billions of dollars alone to develop redundant technologies? If the world can work together in space exploration, we probably will not see another launch failure. Countries who can do better at launching satelites and space probes should handle the job. Division of tasks among nations is the only economical way to achieve our goal of exploring the solar system and beyond. What the world needs right now is sustainable boosts to its fragile economy. Space research and exploration will create new technologies, new jobs and new business opportunities along the way. If nations are still staying in their cold war mentality of the 60's, Earth will have no hope to survive the tumultuous future from terrorism, global warming and war.

Karen: 09/02/2016 02:41 CDT

1) The use of SpaceX for launches is no more "Ayn Rand In Space" than the use of Lockheed or Boeing for launches. 2) A 93% success rate is not far from the industry average (95%). And this for a rocket still in its infancy (a history of only a few years), with no family pedigree of significance, and measured immediately after a failure, all of which bias the number down.

GaryChurch: 09/02/2016 12:20 CDT

@Karen There is a segment of the population that supports space exploration and colonization- call that "HSF" as in Human Space Flight. The NewSpace mob over the past decade has lied, misinformed, and manipulated the media and public opinion with their Low Earth Orbit cheap lift scam. NewSpace is NOT about HSF. It is in reality the opposite- an Orwellian construct. SpaceX is the flagship company of NewSpace and Musk is the cult figure being used to promote this scam. The sooner the NewSpace house of cards collapses the better.

GaryChurch: 09/02/2016 12:49 CDT

@ScienceFiction "Space exploration should always be a concerted effort among the international community." Except for the 100 billion dollar soon-to-die-of-old-age space station to nowhere it has never been a concerted effort. There is no reason to suppose it will be short of a comet or asteroid taking out a city. "If the world can work together in space exploration, we probably will not see another launch failure." There will always be another launch failure. Fiction. "What the world needs right now is sustainable boosts to its fragile economy." The human race has more capability in terms technology and resources than it ever has. We are not "fragile" and can expend vast resources on space by simply redirecting defense dollars.

GaryChurch: 09/02/2016 12:56 CDT

"If nations are still staying in their cold war mentality of the 60's, Earth will have no hope to survive the tumultuous future from terrorism, global warming and war." The cold war created the first space age- which ended in 1972 with Apollo 17. The most likely genesis of another space age will also concern Mutual Assured Destruction. Moving the nuclear deterrent into deep space on "space boomers" would end the present hair-trigger-launch-on-warning situation and also defend Earth against asteroids and comets. As for global warming, the only real solution was worked out in the late 70's by Gerard K. O'Neill: Space Solar Power.

GaryChurch: 09/02/2016 01:05 CDT

Radiation is square one. Humans require thousands of tons of water shielding for any long term presence Beyond Low Earth Orbit (BELO). The only practical path to acquiring this shielding for space stations and spaceships is the ice on the Moon. The only practical path to the lunar poles is with a program of Super Heavy Lift Vehicle (SHLV) missions. That would be the SLS- the program endlessly demonized by the NewSpace mob. Going direct to the Moon with a SHLV dumps the NewSpace business plan in the trashcan. Where it belongs.

Jason Davis: 09/02/2016 05:06 CDT

Good question, Teddy -- we aren't sure at this point. Any delays to the Falcon Heavy will impact our timeline, but we probably won't know for sure for quite some time.

Bob Ware: 09/03/2016 06:04 CDT

This is a major set back on timelines. Anything at this point could have caused the accident including a short circuit with the umbilical components for example. I disagree strongly with GaryChurch on 2 points. 1. Quoting him "There will always be another launch failure. Fiction." this is fiction at its best. 2. Private companies doing space exploration is fine. They are in their infancy at doing this and in some aspects so is NASA and the other space agencies. One day they will carry out their own missions. Rocketry is full of extremes all of which interact with each other. Weather, cryogenics, materials, electrical energy, manufacturing quality and human factors at all levels of this activity to fly into space contain many numbers of chances for a critical failure that will destroy a rocket, on the pad, in the launch phase or in flight. At times people will die but they know and accept the risks or they would not be in the business.

GaryChurch: 09/03/2016 06:45 CDT

Inferring "there will never be another launch failure" is a non-fiction is....absurd. Saying private companies "doing space exploration is fine" is sophistry. Companies make money- exploration by itself generates no revenue. Fiction. "At times people will die but they know and accept the risks-" Such technobabble ending with bizarro fatalism is standard NewSpace shop talk. Which is why the sooner NewSpace is exposed and dumped the better.

Karen: 09/03/2016 06:52 CDT

@Bob Ware - I'm not so sure that "anything at this point could have caused the accident including a short circuit with the umbilical components for example". LOX is a stable compound. It doesn't just explode (okay, deflagrate) when sparked. From the very first frame of the burn, there's clearly A) a high overpressure, and B) significant combustion underway in the LOX tank (bright light, not just a bursting cloud). It sure appears to be a common bulkhead failure, or at least something similar. Another thought is that it could be contaminated LOX in the tank, although I've never heard of anything like that before taking down a rocket. But LOX can entrain and freeze out combustible fuels, which can deflagrate/detonate with relatively little energy input. I'm not sure whether I'd rather it have been a mechanical failure or human error in the propellant loading... the former means fixes, testing, and delays, but the latter makes SpaceX look incompetent.

Karen: 09/03/2016 06:56 CDT

Gary, please. You've been cautioned about this before, and I've seen your posts deleted before for this reason: try to have a conversation with people who have dissenting views without name calling. I'm not going to get involved here, but please re-read your posts (not just this last one) and see if you can tell how you come across - and think about whether name calling is actually a way to convince people to come around to your line of thinking.

Bob Ware: 09/03/2016 07:32 CDT

@Karen -- yes I did give a very over simplified and highly improbable scenario but only as an example of a myriad of things that can go wrong. However with that said, At work on the day of the accident when a co-worker brought the accident to my attention, I had actually used your example (points A & B) to him and I also mentioned to him a telemetry analysis would also be needed. Your example is in hind sight is what I should have used. looking at the video frame by frame and enlarged significantly does show support for your view point. Regardless of the cause, failures and accidents will occur from time to time and the pieces will be picked up, problem identified and fixed followed by flight again. The private sector and government will explore space jointly and separately based upon their own plans. This is a good thing and the support for it is nice.

Bob Ware: 09/03/2016 07:39 CDT

@GaryChurch -- "At times people will die but they know and accept the risks-" Such technobabble ending with bizarro fatalism is standard NewSpace shop talk. Which is why the sooner NewSpace is exposed and dumped the better. If people do not take risks to get ahead then progress does not get made. Take Test Pilots for example -- those people who helped the engineers get us past the 'sound barrier.'

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