Falcon 9 explosion could be ‘most difficult and complex failure’ in SpaceX history
It has been over a week since the Sept. 1 launch pad explosion that destroyed both the Falcon 9 rocket and the $200 million Amos-6 satellite. In that time, SpaceX has shed few details about what exactly happened. In a Sept. 9 post on Twitter, the company CEO and founder, Elon Musk, said the failure could be “the most difficult and complex” the NewSpace firm has had to deal with in 14 years.
It happened during a static fire test – something the company does a couple of days before every mission to ensure all systems are working properly. Ordinarily, once fully fueled and the countdown reaches zero, the engines would fire for a few seconds and then shut down.
In a measure to save time, SpaceX and the satellite’s owner, Spacecom, decided to perform the test with the payload already on top – a practice the NewSpace firm only started doing this year. However, some eight minutes prior to when the first stage’s nine Merlin 1D engines would have ignited, an explosion occurred – but not where anyone might have expected.
“The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle,” SpaceX reported on its website at 1:28 p.m. EDT (17:28 GMT) the day of the explosion. “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.”
The resulting “fast fire”, as Musk called it, caused damage to the launch pad, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40.
How much damage, or how long repairs will take, is still to be determined. It was the first pre-flight pad failure to occur at the Cape since the 1960s and one of the largest rocket explosions in U.S. spaceflight history.
“Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation,” Musk tweeted. “Engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source.”
In an update on SpaceX’s website, the company stated they are in the early process of looking through some 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a time period of only 35–55 milliseconds.
A video of the anomaly was captured by US Launch Report and posted on YouTube. A few seconds before the explosion a small pop can be heard about three seconds prior to the sound of the explosion.
“Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off,” Musk tweeted. “May come from [the] rocket or something else.”
When a Twitter user replied to Musk commenting about the noise sounding like a metal joint popping under stress or a failed strut, or weld seam bursting, the SpaceX CEO said, “Most likely true, but we can’t yet find it on any vehicle sensors.”
Additionally, Musk said the company has not ruled out something physically hitting the rocket.
This incident occurred some 14 months since the June 28, 2015, CRS-7 launch failure. But unlike the previous failure, the cause remains particularly mysterious.
“If you have audio, photos or videos of our anomaly last week, please send to firstname.lastname@example.org,” the company tweeted out Friday. “Material may be useful for investigation.”
Tory Bruno, the CEO of United Launch Alliance, SpaceX’s primary U.S. competitor, told Reuters it typically takes nine to 12 months for companies to return rockets to flight.
“That’s what the history is,” Bruno said, not mentioning SpaceX by name. However, SpaceX only took seven months to return to flight following the CRS-7 incident.
Video courtesy of US Launch Report
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.