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Explosion on SpaceX Launch Pad Destroys Rocket, Amos-6 Satellite - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Sep-2016
Updated: 01-Sep-2016 11:59 PM

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded today during a pre-launch test at Cape Canaveral Launch Pad 40.  The explosion occurred during preparations for a test of the rocket two days before its scheduled launch to place the AMOS-6 communications satellite into orbit.  AMOS-6 was built by Israel Aerospace Industries and was already attached to the rocket so also was destroyed.  Facebook was one of the customers planning to use the satellite.  A video of the explosion is posted on YouTube showing the extensive damage, but no one was at the pad and no one was injured.

The incident occurred at 9:07 am Eastern Daylight Time as SpaceX was getting ready to test its Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for a scheduled launch on Saturday. Details are still unfolding, but something happened during fueling of the upper stage.  SpaceX has issued two tweets with their official statements on what they know so far.

USLaunchReport.com posted a video of the explosion on its YouTube channel.

This was a commercial launch for a commercial company, not for NASA or any other government agency.  However, NASA is a SpaceX customer, both for commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station (ISS) and for launching some of its satellites (such as the Jason-3 satellite earlier this year). SpaceX also is one of the two companies developing commercial crew systems to take astronauts to and from the ISS.   NASA issued the following statement today:

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Representatives Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX) issued supportive statements highlighting the difficulty of space travel.  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) also offered support.   CSF President Eric Stallmer said "We have full confidence that SpaceX will fully investigate and remedy the anomaly, and safely return to launching as soon as possible."

SpaceX's first launch vehicle, Falcon 1, had three launch failures and one launch success before the company terminated it.  The Falcon 9 has had 27 launch successes and one launch failure (a cargo mission for NASA in June 2015).   Today's incident was a test, not a launch, and therefore counts as a test failure, not a launch failure.

It is routine to test a rocket on its launch pad prior to a launch.  The rocket is fueled and ignited, but the hold down clamps are not released, keeping it secured to the pad.  Usually the satellite is not aboard the rocket at that time, however.  After a successful test, the satellite is "integrated" to the rocket, the rocket is refueled, and launch takes place.   SpaceX decided to integrate satellites to its rockets before the tests to save time.  Peter deSelding, a reporter for Space News, tweeted (@pbdes) that the company started the practice this year "to trim a day frm [sic] launch campaign" and insurers were "upset, but not a lot."

AMOS-6 was owned by Spacecom, an Israeli company, the sixth satellite in a series that began in 1996.  It had three Ku-band and 36 HTS Ka-band transponders covering Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.  One of the customers was Facebook, which planned to use it in collaboration with Europe's Eutelsat to provide Internet coverage to Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in Africa now and posted a statement on his own Facebook page about the incident:  "As I'm here in Africa, I'm deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.  Fortunately, we have developed other technologies like Aquila that will connect people as well.  We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone, and we will keep working until everyone has the opportunities this satellite would have provided."

The impact on SpaceX and its customers will not be known until the cause of the incident is determined and remedied.  The video suggests that the launch pad may have been significantly damaged, which could be costly and time-consuming to repair.  

SpaceX leases the launch pad from the Air Force.  It is located at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is adjacent to NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC).    NASA has two launch pads at KSC that were used for the Apollo and space shuttle programs.  It now leases one of those pads, Launch Complex 39A, to SpaceX.  SpaceX plans to use it for a larger rocket it is building, Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled for its first test launch this year.  SpaceX also is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.   It can  launch from an Air Force pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, too, but that launch site is used only for satellites that need to be placed in orbits that circle the Earth's poles (polar orbits).  Most satellites are launched into lower inclination orbits more readily accessible from the East Coast.


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