On 1 September, the SpaceX company proceeded with testing its Falcon 9 launcher on the ground in preparation for lift off on 3 September, when there was an explosion, which destroyed the launcher and the Israeli satellite Amos-6.
In Florida, SpaceX, founded by the billionaire Elon Musk just over 10 years ago, was working on two launch pads. The Cape Canaveral Air Force Station SLC-40 is used for launching commercial satellites and its Dragon cargo capsule towards the International Space Station for NASA. The Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, just a few kilometres away, is used for the Apollo programme and the American agency’s shuttles. SpaceX is in the process of modifying it to become the departure base for its two launchers: today’s Falcon 9 and the more powerful future Falcon Heavy.
Explosion on SpaceX SLC-40
The facility concerned by the explosion observed by many eye witnesses on 1 September at 09.01 EDT happens to be the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station SLC-40 launch pad. But the accident did not occur during a launch: today, SpaceX was to test its Falcon 9 launcher on the launch pad by firing the 1st-stage thrusters without lift off, as is standard practice for this company. It was not until Saturday 3 September that the Falcon 9 was to send the Israeli Amos-6 telecommunications satellite into orbit.
The video below shows the launcher’s destruction (at 1:10).
SpaceX declared that its launcher and its payload (the Amos-6 satellite) had been destroyed in the explosion on 1 September. The cause of the problem was not specified, evoking an “anomaly on the launch pad.” The private American company’s report asserted that no staff were on the SLC-40, in full respect of safety measures.
At the same time, the 45th Space Wing of the US Air Force which runs the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station emphasised that “initial reports mention no victims or risk for public safety.”
SpaceX and Elon Musk later provided further details. First, it was confirmed that the accident occurred before firing of the 1st-stage thrusters and no one was injured. Concerning the explosion, Elon Musk preferred to qualify it as “rapid fire.” In a Tweet, he specified that the loss of the launcher occurred “during tanking (filling up the fuel tanks)” and that “the anomaly originated around the upper-stage oxygen tank.” No hasty conclusions should be drawn. The SpaceX director in no way incriminated the Falcon 9’s second-stage oxygen tank. He simply commented on what can be seen on the video, i.e. that the explosion originated in the vicinity of this tank. As to whether it is inside the tank, or nearby, it is too early to be certain and only after analysing the data will it possible to determine the reasons for the failure. And Elon Musk concludes with a sober: “Cause still unknown. More soon.”