An experimental SpaceX rocket engine exploded during a test last Saturday, November 4, according to the company. Although no one was harmed, the incident is a small setback in what has otherwise been a hugely successful 2017.
The story was first broken by The Washington Post, who said it occurred during a “qualification test”. This was a new engine that hadn’t flown before, but testing is likely to be suspended until the cause can be identified, which might take several weeks.
The explosion took place at SpaceX’s MacGregor facility in Texas. It involved a new Merlin engine being tested by the company, the type of engine used on its Falcon 9 rocket.
This was a new Block 5 variant of the engine, with Block 4 currently being used on the rocket. SpaceX is planning to use the new variant on its rockets towards the end of 2018.
"No one was injured and all safety protocols were followed during the time of this incident," a statement from SpaceX said according to Space.com.
"We are now conducting a thorough and fully transparent investigation of the root cause."
According to Ars Technica, the explosion occurred before the engine was lit, during a procedure when liquid oxygen was added to the engine to test for leaks. Something appears to have ignited the fluid in the rocket engine, causing the explosion.
SpaceX has launched 16 rockets already this year, 13 of which have included a rocket landing. That’s double its previous record for launches in a single year, and they may finish the year with as many as 20.
That could include the launch of SpaceX’s huge new rocket by the end of December, the Falcon Heavy, which will be the world’s most powerful rocket in operation. The company said it did not expect this latest mishap to affect its ambitious launch schedule.
“SpaceX is committed to our current manifest and we do not expect this to have any impact on our launch cadence,” the statement from SpaceX added.
In September 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad while going through routine testing. While not as severe, this latest blip is still a bit of a blow for the company.