avatarby Nick HallSeptember 24, 20160 comments

SpaceX has revealed that an explosion that hit the Falcon 9 launch at Cape Canaveral on September 1st was due to a breach in the cryogenic helium system.

Technically, it wasn’t an explosion. It was a “really fast fire”, according to a Tweet by Elon Musk, but the result was much the same. The rocket was destroyed along with Facebook’s Amos-6 satellite. The explosion also damaged the launch pad the Launch Complex 40 site, but the nearby office building was undamaged and most of the storage tanks for the likes of oxygen and kerosene were left intact.

It happened during a static fire

The fire took hold during a static fire test, which is standard practice before a launch and involves firing the engines while the rocket is held in place to make sure the systems will all work when the time comes.

SpaceX’s accident investigation team still hasn’t found the exact cause of the explosion and has to analyze more than 3000 data channels, including video and audio recordings of the accident itself. The whole accident took just 93ms, but it could take months to get to the bottom of what happened.

A lot of people will be waiting on the results, including investors and the likes of NASA that have lucrative contracts with SpaceX. Even Facebook will want an explanation for an explosion that set it back months as simple insurance doesn’t come close to covering losses like this.

It’s not the same as the last big accident

The team is convinced, though, that this accident isn’t related to last year’s explosion, even though both incidents could be traced back to the upper liquid oxygen tanks. Last year’s explosion was due to a faulty strut that was designed to hold down a helium pressure vessel.

The investigators clearly looked at this as a possible cause for the latest explosion and has moved swiftly to rule it out. Space travel is a hugely complex business and mistakes do happen, but making the same mistake twice would not look good.

SpaceX will keep working to find the cause, but it still wants to get back on track and has targeted another launch in November. Launchpads aren’t an issue, it can use a pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or an alternative at Cape Canaveral. The company clearly has a rocket ready to go, too, as it will not rush a build with this much riding on it and Musk will insist that the team goes over the Falcon 9 with a fine toothcomb as it just can’t afford many more of these incidents.

The Falcon 9 is due to carry people soon

Elon Musk’s outfit has to transport astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program within the next two years. But NASA will almost certainly want some strong assurances that the problem has been fixed before it agrees to send people into space on the Falcon 9. Musk maintains that the Dragon escape pod would have had time to detach and the astronauts would have been safe, but it would be better all round if there was no fire at all.

An explosion with a satellite aboard is one thing, but if there’s another incident with astronauts on board then it would be an absolute disaster for SpaceX. So behind the scenes, you’d better believe that the investigation team will be working overtime to get to the bottom of this and fast.

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