Footage has been released showing yesterday’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion. It is not yet clear what caused the issue, but one thing is for sure: The incident is a major setback for the company, and will likely cause delays to many of its upcoming launches.
The explosion occurred yesterday at 9.07am EDT (2.07pm BST) at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The rocket was mounted vertically with its payload on board an Israeli-built telecommunications satellite and was just minutes away from a static fire test – a ground test of the rocket's engines – when the incident occurred. Both the rocket and the $200 million payload were lost.
“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s standard pre-launch static fire test, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload,” SpaceX said in a statement. “Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”
Video of the explosion, which begins around the 1:10 mark. The payload falls to the ground and explodes at 1:20
The full extent of the damage is not yet known, but the launch pad looks to be in a pretty bad shape. The strongback, a metallic frame used to hold up the rocket, seems to have been severely damaged, with images showing it bent out of shape. The pad itself is likely to need considerable repairs; when an Orbital Sciences rocket exploded in October 2014, it took a year to get their launch pad up and running again.
“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said in a brief post on Twitter. “Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.”
For SpaceX, it means that they will have to postpone many of their upcoming plans. The company had nine more launches on the table for the rest of the year, including the first flight of one of its reusable rockets. It’s likely many or all of these launches will be pushed back to next year.
It does have a second launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but launches from this location have a different orientation to those from Florida, meaning certain flights – such as Dragon cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) – are not possible.
SpaceX was also preparing for a launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket this year, a heavy-lift vehicle that would be the most powerful in operation today, and a cornerstone of their ultimate plans to get to Mars. The inaugural flight of that vehicle is likely to be pushed back to next year at the earliest.
And the company was also well underway with its plans to begin manned flights next year, as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Prior to the explosion, however, a report had already stated that this goal would probably be delayed to 2018 for other reasons. That now seems a near certainty.
This interesting gif shows how a manned SpaceX Dragon capsule could have avoided the explosion during a launch abort
The loss of the payload, too, has major ramifications. Israeli operator Spacecom, who built the Amos-6 satellite, saw their shares drop 9 percent following the explosion, although they rebounded slightly later. Other companies experienced less severe hits to trading.
The satellite was to be used in part by Internet.org, an initiative started by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to bring wireless Internet connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that do not have Internet access. He posted a comment on Facebook after the explosion saying he was “deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite,” although added that they had developed “other technologies” to achieve their goal.
SpaceX will recover. The company experienced a launch failure in June last year, and following an accident investigation it returned to full operations. This time around, however, with their launch pad destroyed, the hiatus could last quite a bit longer. The company does have another launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Launch Complex 39A, which was earmarked for Falcon Heavy launches, but can also be used for Falcon 9 launches. That may now be used while Launch Complex 40 is repaired.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this event; it’s bad news, for SpaceX and also its numerous customers. Rocket failures have happened before, though, and they will happen again, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Here’s hoping for a swift recovery, and no loss in confidence in SpaceX, who have worked wonders for the space industry in the last decade.