Falcon 9 destroyed

Falcon-9-Destroyed-SpaceX-lrgAt about 9.07am local time (2.07pm BST) yesterday (1 September) a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was destroyed during preparation for a static test of the first stage on Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

A problem occurred during fuelling and pressurisation of the upper stage liquid oxygen tank. In the resultant explosion the stage ruptured and caused the two stages to collapse. Seemingly restrained by its umbilical connections to the service mast, the payload section began to pivot 10 seconds after the explosion and plummet to the ground alongside the first stage which had already collapsed on to the pad area.

Several secondary explosions were heard and felt in the area as various tanks and pressurised vessels in the launch vehicle and satellite ruptured. There were no casualties and the pad area had been evacuated as a standard procedure during pre-flight stage tests.

The payload comprised the 5.3 ton AMOS-6 communications satellite for the Israeli-based Spacecom organisation and was to have been used to bring broadband to sub-Saharan Africa as a replacement for Amos-2. The launch was scheduled for 3 September.

This is the third failure of a Falcon 9 in 29 attempts – this being the first during a pad test – giving the SpaceX rocket a 90% success rate which is still unacceptably low compared with the average across the launch market.

The consequences of this loss are far reaching. For the customer, procurement of Spacecom by China’s Beijing Xinwei technology Group was contingent on the success of this launch and the placement of Amos-6 in orbit.

For SpaceX this could not have occurred at a worse time. The company is now taking advantage of the surge in commitment and support from the US Congress in allocating necessary funds to get both it and its competitors sending astronauts to the International Space Station from US soil by the end of 2017. Because this is the launch vehicle which will be used in that endeavour, this disaster will impact plans for placing humans aboard Dragon 2 spacecraft and could delay that into 2018 or 2019.

SpaceX had already launched eight Falcon 9 this year and planned to send another eight up before the end of 2016. LC-40 is the only pad from which the rocket can be launched, until operations begin at LC-39A, originally the pad from were Apollo and Shuttle flights began. Originally, the debut of Falcon Heavy was to have been off LC-39A in November this year but those plans are now suspended pending a detailed analysis of the accident.

The next ISS resupply flight (CRS-10) had been scheduled for 11 November this year but an Orbital ATK Cygnus launch (OA-5) is expected in October, the first using the new Antares 230 launch vehicle powered by two RD-181 motors.

David Baker
Editor, Spaceflight

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