Conspiracy theories regarding Amos-6 Falcon 9 explosion not based on physics, reality
On Sept. 1, 2016, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploded on its launch pad while being fueled for a static test fire. Its payload was Spacecom’s Amos-6 satellite, which was also lost. Since then, SpaceX has conducted its own investigation into what happened, assisted by the U.S. Air Force since the incident took place on an Air Force base.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, has called the failure “the most difficult and complex” that the company has ever had. A week after the explosion, he pleaded with the public to turn in video or audio of the blast and said that the company had not ruled out something hitting the rocket.
On Sept. 30, the Washington Post ran an article that claimed a SpaceX employee attempted to visit United Launch Alliance’s SMARF building a mile away from the launchpad. The article went on to note that SpaceX had a video showing a suspicious shadow on top of the SMARF building, followed by a white spot.
According to the article, ULA rebuffed their request to visit and had the Air Force investigate the site, which turned up nothing.
Additionally, a few commenters on the space news site Parabolic Arc have claimed that the explosion was the result of snipers or drones with lasers. Some of the more extreme ones have claimed extraterrestrial interference (as noted on Daily Mail, a U.K. based media outlet).
The drones with lasers theory can be ruled out because it assumes small handheld lasers could be powerful enough to penetrate a rocket’s hull quickly enough to avoid a telltale flame before the explosion.
The next theory – a sniper – doesn’t hold up that well. The rocket was destroyed about eight minutes before it could start its engines for the static test fire. The supposed sniper could have waited until first-stage engine ignition, which would have covered the sound of a shot. Even a suppressed rifle can be quite loud, and the passage of the bullet through the air would have generated a distinctive sound. As Elon Musk wrote on Twitter a while ago, his team did not come to that conclusion.
“Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off,” Musk tweeted. “May come from rocket or something else.”
Video courtesy of Mythbusters
The .50-caliber Barrett rifle has a maximum effective range of little over a mile. It would be extraordinarily difficult (albeit not impossible) for a trained sniper to get within rifle range of the launch pad, given the tight security at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It is extremely unlikely that the U.S. government, much less any foreign powers, could have sponsored such an attack, even if they stood to benefit from it.
Moreover, contrary to many Hollywood blockbusters, you can shoot fuel tanks all day and they won’t explode. Mythbusters, Science ABC, and numerous other organizations have reviewed the subject and conducted tests on the fuel compartments of automobiles and other vehicles using other fuel sources. Even if someone were to use tracer rounds, which can be seen even during the day, it would not cause a tank to explode. The physics involved don’t support the theory that a bullet caused the Sept. 1 explosion.
Even if foul play is assumed, the explosion originated from the second stage of the rocket. It would have been far easier for a sniper (according to a report appearing on Popular Mechanics) to aim at the first stage from a prone position – and much more logical – given that the static test fire only uses the first stage.
SpaceX has encountered problems with its helium system in the past. The most well known being the June 2015 over-pressure event which saw the complete loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and the CRS-7 Dragon spacecraft that was on its way to the International Space Station. Given the Hawthorne, California-based company has stated that the helium system was the focal point of this latest accident, it would appear it is more plausible that a system that has given SpaceX issues in the past is far more likely to be responsible than a sniper on the SMARF, laser firing black drones, or UFOs.
Speculation that there are those who wish the company harm is, unfortunately, accurate. SpaceX has demonstrated the ability to launch payloads to orbit for approximately a third of the cost of what comparable launch service providers charge. Moreover, the company has shown that it is possible to have the first stage of their rockets conduct controlled landings on both the ground and at sea – something older aerospace firms have not been able to accomplish.
Reports have emerged that work conditions within SpaceX are what some would define as stressful. An article posted on Parabolic Arc in April 2014 noted at least two lawsuits had been filed regarding long hours, illegal firings, and other situations within the company. The firm has attempted to dismiss these accusations with mixed results. If it is discovered sabotage was, in fact, responsible, it is possible SpaceX will need to conduct a deeper internal investigation rather than one focused on UFOs or hired sharpshooters funded by other launch service providers.
Video courtesy of US Launch Report / UFOvni2012
This article was edited at 11:36 a.m. EDT on Oct. 4 and contains the work of Eric Shear, Derek Richardson and Jason Rhian.
Eric Shear is a recent graduate from York University, honors bachelor in space science. Before that, Shear studied mechanical engineering at Tacoma Community College. During this time, Shear helped develop the HYDROS water-electrolysis propulsion system at Tethers Unlimited and led a microgravity experiment on the Weightless Wonder parabolic aircraft. Shear has worked for an extended period of time to both enable and promote space flight awareness. Shear agreed to contribute to SpaceFlight Insider’s efforts so that he could provide extra insight into interplanetary missions, both past and present.