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SpaceX blast scene
A video stream from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida shows smoke rising from a SpaceX launch pad blast. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, says the launch-pad explosion that resulted in the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its satellite payload last week stands as the most puzzling failure he’s faced since he started up the company.

In a series of post-midnight tweets, Musk said it’s possible that something hit the rocket to cause the fireball.

He put out the call for any recordings of the event – and said he was particularly interested in an explosive sound that preceded the main fireball by just a few seconds. “May come from rocket or something else,” he wrote:

The blast occurred on Sept. 1 while the Falcon 9 was being prepared for a static fire test at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The Israeli-made Amos 6 telecommunication satellite was due for launch on the rocket two days later. Facebook had struck a deal with the operator, Spacecom, to use the satellite to provide low-cost internet access to Africa.

The satellite was put in place atop the Falcon 9 for the test – so when the fireball erupted, the blaze destroyed the satellite as well as the rocket.

The pad had been evacuated for the test, and as a result, the fire caused no injuries.

 

Last week, Musk said attention was being focused on the upper-stage oxygen tank. That appeared to be the source of the rocket-destroying blast, based on frame-by-frame analysis of launch-pad videos.

However, SpaceX says its accident investigation team is reviewing about 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data, under the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration and with the participation of NASA, the U.S. Air Force and other industry experts.

Some conspiracy theorists have already floated suggestions that a UFO zapped the rocket.

In response to a tweeted question, Musk said it was possible that something hit the Falcon 9 in advance of the blast.

The mishap came as SpaceX was ramping up an ambitious schedule, with millions of dollars at stake.

The California-based company had been slated to launch its first batch of next-generation communication satellites for Iridium in September; its first previously flown Falcon 9 booster, refurbished to put a satellite in orbit as early as October; and a cargo resupply launch to the International Space Station in November.

SpaceX was also gearing up to launch its first Falcon Heavy rocket late this year or early next year.

Now those plans could be put on hold on months, particularly because Musk says the cause of the fireball seems so puzzling.

Last year, Falcon 9 launches were suspended for more than five months in the wake of a launch failure. The cause of that failure was traced to a faulty strut in the rocket’s upper-stage oxygen tank.

In addition to addressing the root causes of the fireball, SpaceX has to address repairs to the launch pad. If the damage requires extensive repairs, SpaceX says it has the option of shifting scheduled launches to two other launch pads: Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“Both pads are capable of supporting Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches,” SpaceX said last week. “We are confident the two launch pads can support our return to flight and fulfill our upcoming manifest needs.”

The original version of this report incorrectly implied that putting the Amos 6 satellite on the Falcon 9 for the static fire test was a procedural change made for last week’s scheduled launch. Whether or not the payload is placed on the rocket for the pre-launch test is up to the customer. 

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