SpaceX says an investigation into the launch pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its satellite payload has turned up evidence of a “large breach” in the supercooled helium system for the oxygen tank on the rocket’s second stage.
Today’s update made clear that the root cause of the Sept. 1 blast at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida has not yet been identified. Nevertheless, SpaceX said it anticipated to return to flight as early as November, “pending the results of the investigation.”
SpaceX is leading the investigation, just as it did last year when a Falcon 9 broke apart shortly after liftoff. That mishap involved a component inside the second-stage oxygen tank, but today the company said it’s ruled out a connection between the two blasts.
“All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated,” SpaceX said.
The accident investigation team includes representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, the U.S. Air Force as well as industry experts. SpaceX said the team was scouring through 3,000 channels of engineering data along with video, audio and imagery. Blast debris is sitting in a hangar, available for inspection and analysis.
“The timeline of the event is extremely short – from first signs of an anomaly to loss of data is about 93 milliseconds or less than one-tenth of a second,” SpaceX said.
The company said substantial areas of Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40 were affected by the blast, but other facilities were in relatively good condition. In November, SpaceX plans to have the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center ready for use.
This month’s blast took place during the buildup to a static fire test in preparation for the scheduled Sept. 3 launch of the Israeli-made Amos 6 telecommunications satellite. Facebook had been planning to use the satellite to provide low-cost Internet access to Africa. After the explosion, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said he was “deeply disappointed” by the loss.
The mishap and investigation have added an element of uncertainty for SpaceX’s ambitious launch schedule. The company had planned to conduct the first launch of Iridium Next communication satellites this month, followed by the first launch of a previously flown Falcon 9 booster and a cargo resupply launch to the International Space Station.
SpaceX says it can send up rockets from Launch Complex 39A as well as Vandenberg Air Force Base in California while repairs are being made to Launch Complex 40. However, the company will have to determine the cause of the anomaly and make any required design changes before those rockets are cleared for flight.