Spaceflight Insider

Conspiracy theories regarding Amos-6 Falcon 9 explosion not based on physics, reality


A SpaceX Falcon 9 explodes on the launch pad on Sept. 1, 2016. Image Credit: Mike Wagner / US Launch Report

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.

Reader Comments

Muhammad Riaz Khan

In an earlier post I had pointed out:

1). Fuel shoul bed loaded only after the tests are complete ,
2). Pay should not be uploaded before fueling and testing.
3). Helium problem should be investigated thoroughly.
4). No more time be wasted on futile excercie ufo possibility
5). The spaceX should not be in a hurry to do the job. They should give sufficient time to various stages of the job. They should also review the work conditions in their work place.

FYI—the infamous M107 Barrett .50 long range sniper rifle has an effective range of 7,000 yards (!) and can reliably take a head shot at > 2000 yards ( I think the acknowledged ” best shot” by a Marine combat sniper is somewhere around 2500 yards). The M107 is also capable of using explosive rounds.

Just sayin’ , not agreeing with the tinfoil hatters here.

It was sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads. Or ill-tempered mutated sea bass. Could be either.

This is strictly an informational and thus “neutral” comment regarding possible use of a .50 caliber round to damage or destroy the launch vehicle; tracer rounds are not necessarily strongly visible in daylight, but armor piercing incendiary projectiles oieincendiaries would have a damaging effect. Neither has a tracer component and are thus “invisible.” These are still available LEGALLY from a wide variety of sources. That said, sabotage by a disgruntled employee should not be discounted either. A competitor would also resultantly gain from a SpaceX disaster. The old “follow the money” concept should also remain under investigation.

Daniel Wisehart

I do not believe a sniper was the cause of the accident.

But I have to agree: the range of the .50 caliber Barrett rifle shooting widely available Laupa 750 grain bullets on a target much larger than a human is more than a mile. The ballistics show the bullet would still be at mach 1.2 and deliver 3100 ft-lbs of energy, which is still ten times what a .45 ACP pistol caliber bullet will deliver at the muzzle. If the bullet penetrated a helium CPOV, the results would be catastrophic as the LOX fuel lines that penetrate the RP-1 fuel tank rupture from overpressure. Here are the ballistics of the Lapua bullet at a mile:

Again: I do not believe that a sniper had any part in the accident.

Silly UFO site is silly. 🙂 That was a bird between the camera and rocket, note the bobbing motion of it.

If sabotage was a factor in the SpaceX Falcon 9 catastrophic failure only time, evidence and careful analysis with tell. Nonetheless, for a number of reasons it should be looked at as a plausible possibility.

Motive: SpaceX has shaken up the world wide launch services industries. Many national providers cannot now and perhaps never will be able to compete with SpaceX. Included in a list of providers facing potential extinction are: ULA, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans. All have strong desire to see SpaceX fail.

Hate for SpaceX: The hate in the industry for SpaceX as an upstart successful launch service provider when so many others have failed, is palpable. My own observations in rocket related publications comments section is a significant number of people spewing hate for SpaceX.

The oddness of the failure: In the history of rockets there is no recorded failure of a launch vehicle during a test due to the second stage exploding. This is a very bizarre and improbable failure.

Method: There are a number of ways that the second stage could have been sabotaged both externally and internally. Most methods however should be able to be detected by chemical and microscopic analysis. Hopefully there is enough of the pertinent parts left for chemical analysis can be performed.

Michael Collins

A .50 cal bullet will obliterate a 2nd stage LOX tank. What if it wasn’t the first bullet that exploded the tank? What if SpaceX found pieces of metal with bullet holes in it while gathering forensic evidence? I would keep an eye on this story.

“It is extremely unlikely that the U.S. government,…,could have sponsored such an attack” – exactly why is that so unlikely? If you want a measure of the USG’s nowadays institutionalized willingness to disregard its own laws, just take a look at its “investigations” of financial crime over the past decade.

While seeming unlikely the quiet bang corresponds almost perfectly in time with a shot fired from the ULA building.

USlaunchReport Camera: 28°33’4.15″N, 80°37’8.24″W
ULA Building: 28°33’7.05″N 80°35’23.22″W
Launch pad: 28°33’40.64″N 80°34’38.86″W

Distance camera to ULA building: 9290 feet
Distance camera to pad: 13944 feet
Distance building to pad: 5494 feet

Speed of sound at sea level 1126 ft/s

The ULA building is 4654 feet closer to the USLR camera than the launch pad. If the bullet traveled instantaneously from the ULA building to the launch pad then the sound of the shot would arrive at the camera 4654/1126 = 4.1 seconds before the sound of the explosion on the pad.

A high power cartridge could average about 3500 fps. The bullet would take about 5494/3500 = 1.6 seconds to fly from the building to the pad. Add this to 4.1 and the sound of the explosion should be 5.7 seconds behind the sound of the shot which is almost exactly the case.

Are there any other audio recordings of the event that could be used to triangulate?

you can’t sell a rocket at a low price without cutting corners on design and costs

It’s pretty obvious to me that ULA shot down the Falcon 9 with a laser. This is exactly what they need so they can claim that launching national security payloads on Falcon 9 is too risky. I also believe that the previous in-flight failure was caused by ULA. The supplier that supplied the faulty strut could have been bribed to supply that faulty strut. Suppose this supplier only provides a strut spacex for low profit but supplies a major sub-system to ULA at a relatively high-profit margin This supplier could easily be incentivised to supply the faulty strut as losing the spacex business is small potatoes compared to their ULA business. It only takes one bad part to take down a rocket and ULA and SpaceX are bound to have some common suppliers.

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