Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX Falcon 9 with Amos 6 explodes at SLC-40

SpaceX Falcon 9 Amos-6 Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX encountered a serious anomaly during the static test fire of the Falcon 9 rocket tasked with carrying the Amos-6 satellite. According to the 45th Space Wing, the accident occurred at 9:07 a.m. EDT (13:07 GMT) with images of billowing black smoke and flames appearing on social media outlets such as Twitter.

According to sources in and around Kennedy Space Center, individuals at nearby locations such as Playalinda Beach  were ordered to remain indoors until the area had been deemed safe.

“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,” SpaceX said via a statement issued early in the afternoon on Sept. 1.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 Lloyd Behrendt Blue Sawtooth Studio photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The static test fire is the last milestone a Falcon 9 goes through prior to launch. Photo Credit: Lloyd Behrendt / Blue Sawtooth Studio

As reported on CNN, this is similar to the 1997 loss of a Delta II rocket with the GPS-IIR-1 satellite for the United States Air Force Global Positioning System. That mission got underway from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 17A and lasted for about 13 seconds into the flight.

Then, as now, people were ordered to remain indoors. The Full Thrust Falcon 9 utilizes relatively benign sources of propellant (RP-1 – a highly-refined form of kerosene and liquid oxygen) Additionally, it appears the Amos-6 satellite was attached to the rocket and therefore lost. Typically, orders to remain indoors are issued for when hypergolics, which do appear to have been on the Amos-6 satellite, are used.

During the writing of this article, SpaceX issued the following statement, confirming that the Amos-6 satellite had indeed been lost:

“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload. Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

SpaceX has carried out the static test fire, the critical last step before the rocket is launched, with and without the payload attached.

Images from SLC-40 show that the “strongback”, the structure that supports the Falcon 9 until just prior to launch was severely damaged during the explosion.

According to a tweet issued by SpaceX CEO and FOunder, Elon Musk, the accident actually got its start prior to the actual static test fire: “Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation. Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.” This statement was posted at 1:07 p.m. EDT (17:07 GMT).

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 Amos 6 Photo Credit: Carleton Bailie /SpaceFlight Insider

The remains of the Falcon 9 and strong back at SLC-40 can be seen smoldering in this image. Photo Credit” Carleton Bailie / SpaceFlight Insider

Initial reports suggest that there were no causalities, nor was there any threat to public safety. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) Emergency Management is currently working on the initial on-scene response. Roadblocks have been set up in and around the Cape and officials with the 45th have asked that the public avoid using the entrance to CCAFS until further notice.

This is the second accident that SpaceX has encountered in roughly the past 14 months. On June 28, 2015 a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its CRS-7 Dragon spacecraft cargo were lost 139 seconds into the flight when a strut holding a helium tank in the rocket’s second stage failed.

SpaceX has made a name for itself as it is the only launch service provider to have successfully launched payloads to orbit via the Falcon 9 – and then have the rocket’s first stage conduct a landing. These landings have either occurred at Cape Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 (formerly Space Launch Complex 36) or on one of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships that have been positioned out in the Atlantic Ocean. To date, SpaceX has successfully landed six of the first stages.

SpaceX had been planning on reusing a flown stage as early as this fall, it is unclear what today’s accident will play on the remainder of the Hawthorne, California-based company’s 2016 launch manifest.

“We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be provided as they become available,” SpaceX said via their statement.

In terms of Amos-6, the mission would have seen the Falcon 9 rocket place the satellite in a a geostationary transfer orbit. The satellite, the second to use the Amos-4000 platform, was planned to have an operational life of about 15 years. Amos-6 was built by Israel Aerospace Industries and, according to Space News, would have seen Eutelsat pay some $95 million over the course of about 5 years for the lease of Ka-band spot-beam broadband capacity.

Estimates by Spacecom placed the cost of launching, insuring and operating Amos 6 for a period of about a year at around $85 million. According to a report posted on Globes, the satellite itself cost about $200 million to produce.

At present, it is not known how much damage Space Launch Complex 40 has received or how long it will take to repair. Stay tuned to SpaceFlight Insider as we work to provide you with more information about this breaking story.

Video courtesy of USLaunchReport




Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Gregory L. Mitchell-W2MYA

Dear Jason:(Part 2) Belay my 1st message of 5-10 mins ago as I did just read the complete story of the explosion of the Spacex Falcon 9 and destuction of it’s satellite as well.This is truly a shame but as we’ve known from the days of Vanguard back in the late 50’s
early 60’s this does happen.Jason,you need not bother to write back sir as you are terribly busy now after this explosion as I now know what unfortunately happened. Respectfully, Greg

low cost = low reliability = a $200M sat lost … and, next year, SX wants to put astronauts atop this rocket …

By this logic, the expensive rockets of the 1960s-1980s should have been very reliable. They weren’t.

But if low cost is achieved by cutting corners, this sort of anomaly can result.

I have received anecdotal remarks from someone stating he knows people that work at SLC-40 for SX and that SX “plays fast and loose” there. Hopefully this is not the case, but if so, I do hope any investigation reveals such activity or mindset or corporate culture and corrects it before we start putting humans atop F9.

SpaceX is apparently trying to achieve low costs primarily through hardware simplification (for example, by use of common engines or common tankage structures). I hope you don’t consider this to be “cutting corners”.

Obviously, in addition to this, they could *also* be less fastidious in pad operations, but 1) it is a desirable consequence of launcher simplification that lesser fastidiousness is required (Soyuz apparently is a nice example of this), so it’s not *implicitly* a bad thing and mindset (since it’s an inevitable consequence of trying to make the whole launching thing more common and less exotic), and 2) even if there are cases where they go over the top with this, relative to what is acceptable now, we don’t really know if *this* was the case of it biting them. We know very little at this point, unfortunately. :/ (My first thought was a worn-out umbilical, but your guess is as good as mine.)

Reports that the anomaly took place ‘a few minutes before’ ignition may indicate a problem on the pad or with pre-firing prep/fueling not strictly related to the launch vehicle. Only careful investigation can determine the cause.

Just learned Elon Musk says the initial explosion seems to have originated somewhere in the upper stage oxygen tank area during propellant fill operation.

In the video it appears that the explosion originated just below the payload fairing at the top of the second stage. The second stage also appears to have in the fueling process is well. Forgive my ignorance, but if this was to have been a static fire of the first stage, then why fuel the second stage at all? Additionally why have the payload /fairing mounted for a test of this type?

Most liquid fueled launch vehicles conduct what is known as a “wet dress rehearsal” where the vehicle is completely fueled and prepared for launch, but it is not launched. This is done to verify that all systems are in order / prepared for the mission.

So a pre-launch “fueling test” or “fueling rehearsal” is pretty standard in the industry.

I am not aware of any other rockets that “test fire” their rocket engines prior to the mission. But it is what Space X has been doing from the beginning. I am not aware of the pre-mission test firing ever creating / causing problems. If anything, they may very well have uncovered issues in the past.

Fueling the 2nd state would be part of such a wet-dress rehearsal.

Regarding payload / fairing mounted for this type of test… that would seem to go towards time required to mount the payload and perform pre-launch checks. Most vehicles with which I am familiar will conduct the wet-dress rehearsal after everything is mounted / checked out etc.

With Falcon 9, I believe the would, at a minimum, have to re-lower the F9 down from the launch position to a horizontal position then take it back into the hangar to mount the payload and the fairing. Then you have to roll it back out and re-erect it on the strongback. Sounds like more chances for something to go wrong putting it up the first time, taking it back down, then putting it back up.

Hope this helps.

Are you sure AMOS-6 would have hypergols on board? I had read that it was intended to be the first fully electric spacecraft in the AMOS series.

Sept. 1, 2016

Hi Calli,
Stop and read our entire statement regarding hypergolics:

“Typically, orders to remain indoors are issued for when hypergolics, which do appear to have been on the Amos-6 satellite, are used.”

The words “typically” and “appear to have been” – should provide you with the answer to your question.

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Hi Jason

Was there no pad abort installed on this unit?

No pad abort for non-human payloads. Mission would be to high energy GTO so no margin to put pad abort/recovery system in the first place. And even if there were comm sats don’t like being accelerated at 9Gs then splashing into the ocean on parachutes.

The Amos-6 had electric station-keeping thrusters. But its apogee motor was an Airbus S400. This is a pressure-fed 100 lbf engine that uses hypergolic propellants, specifically Hydrazine and MON (Multiple Oxides of Nitrogen). MON is a mixture of Nitrogen Tetroxide (N2O4), Nitrous Oxide (NO2) and Nitric Oxide (NO). Based on the mass of the satellite, the propellant mass for the apogee motor was probably somewhere between 2 and 3 tons. Hazmat precautions were definitely indicated.

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