What Caused SpaceX's Rocket To Explode?

Something small flies over the rocket just before it explodes, although it's probably just a bird. USLaunchReport

Elon Musk is sad because his rocket blew up. And when he’s sad, we’re sad.

But all hope is not lost. You can cheer him up by sending any images and video you might have of the Falcon 9 explosion last month, which destroyed Israel’s (and Facebook’s) $200m satellite, to report@spacex.com.

Yes, Musk and SpaceX still aren’t sure what caused their rocket to explode last month. On Twitter, Musk said it was “the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years.” And, strangely, the rocket’s engines “were not on and there was no apparent heat source.” Curiouser and curiouser.

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This has led many people to speculate on what might have caused the explosion. Musk noted there had been a quiet bang a few seconds before the rocket exploded in a fireball, which opens up the possibility that something may have hit the rocket.

As Snopes surmises, this has led to a whole manner of conspiracy theories springing up. If you watch the video of the explosion below, you’ll note that something flies over the rocket just before it blows up. While this is probably just a bird, people have been quick to suggest it could be anything from aliens to a rival company sabotaging SpaceX.

At the 1:11 mark, you can see something fly over the rocket

The quality of the video simply isn’t good enough to draw any reasonable conclusions yet (although, rest assured, it’s probably not aliens). Plus, even if this was some evil rocket-destroying drone, we’re not quite sure how it would do it just by flying overhead.

“There’s all kinds of speculation going on as to what it is,” Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, told Florida Today. “That can be dangerous, because it can distract people from doing what they should be doing.”

What we do know so far is that the explosion originated near the rocket’s liquid oxygen (LOX) tank in the upper stage while it was in a vertical position, about eight minutes before the engines were to be test fired. Nobody was harmed, although the pad itself has seen better days. Once SpaceX has finished its investigation and looked through all the data, we’ll hopefully have a clearer picture of what went on.

As for what this means for SpaceX, well, that’s equally complicated. The company had nine more launches planned for this year, but those are all on hold at the moment while the accident is investigated.

The explosion also destroyed SpaceX’s Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, which they need for specific missions like cargo trips to the International Space Station (ISS), so they will either need to wait for the pad to be repaired or speed up the development of their new Launch Complex 41 nearby.

It’s not all bad news, though. SpaceX will recover, and the private space industry continues to make important inroads. “The shocking thing about this incident isn’t the explosion. It’s that it didn’t happen sooner,” Greg Autry notes for SpaceNews. “The Falcon 9’s had an amazing record of 18 perfect flights before its first failure. That’s unusual.”

It may take nine to 12 months for SpaceX to return to flight, the CEO of rival company United Launch Alliance Tory Bruno said to Reuters. But there’s every sign that the company can continue making good progress, with planned launches of the Falcon Heavy rocket, the crewed Dragon capsule, and a mission to Mars on the horizon.

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