SpaceX Outbids ULA for Military GPS Contract Igniting Fierce Launch Competition

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off with Thaicom-8 communications satellite on May 27, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. 1st stage booster landed safely at sea minutes later. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The fierce competition for lucrative launch contracts from the U.S. Air Force just got more even intense with the announcement that SpaceX outbid arch rival United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch an advanced military Global Positioning System (GPS III) navigation satellite to orbit in approx. 2 years.

The U.S. Air Force has announced that SpaceX has won the national security contract to launch a single next generation GPS III satellite to Earth orbit in the first half of 2019. The contract award is valued at $96.5 million.

“SpaceX is proud to have been selected to support this important National Security Space Mission,” Gwynne Shotwell, President & COO, told Universe Today in a statement in response to the GPS III award.

The GPS constellation of navigation satellites is vital to both military and civilian users on a 24/7 basis.

“Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, California, has been awarded a $96,500,490 firm-fixed-price contract for launch services to deliver a GPS III satellite to its intended orbit,” the Air Force announced in a statement.

There could be as many as 15 Air Force launch contracts awarded this year in competitive bidding between ULA and SpaceX.

The upshot is that ULA’s decade long near monopoly on national security launches has now been broken several times in the past year with SpaceX outbidding ULA based on the price of their newer Falcon family of rockets compared to ULA’s long established Atlas and Delta rocket families.

Last year SpaceX won the competition to launch the first GPS-III satellite on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2018 with a bid of $82.7 million after ULA decided not to enter a bid.

“We appreciate the confidence that the U.S. Air Force has placed in our company and we look forward to working together towards the successful launch of another GPS-III mission,” Shotwell elaborated to Universe Today.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell meets the media at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 17 Feb 2017 to discuss a wide range of space launch plans. Credit: Julian Leek

ULA did not bid on the first GPS III contract citing the lack of availability of “any Atlas engines available to bid” and other contract factors as the reason for not submitting a bid for the 2018 launch based on the request for proposals (RFP) for the global positioning satellite.

The Atlas V is powered by Russian made RD-180 engines, who’s import for military uses had been temporarily restricted by Congress following the Russian invasion of the Crimea.

The launch price was a deciding factor in the winning bid.

“Each contractor had to prove through their proposal that they could meet the technical, the schedule and the risk criteria,” said Claire Leon, director of the launch enterprise directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, during a media briefing.

“SpaceX was able to do that. I wouldn’t say that they were necessarily better. They adequately met our criteria.”

SpaceX has been snatching away numerous launch contracts from ULA other launch providers across the globe with their substantially lower rocket prices. SpaceX has been hiring while other firms including ULA have suffered layoffs.

So in response to competitive pressures from SpaceX, ULA took concrete steps to dramatically cut launch costs and end dependency on the RD-180s when CEO Tory Bruno announced in April 2015 that the company would develop the new all-American made Vulcan rocket.

Vulcan is slated for an inaugural liftoff in 2019.

The Air Force expects SpaceX to achieve a rapid turnaround from winning the bid to actually launching the GPS satellite by April 2019.

“Contractor will provide launch vehicle production, mission integration, launch operations, spaceflight worthiness and mission unique activities for a GPS III mission. Work will be performed at Hawthorne, California; Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; and McGregor, Texas, and is expected to be complete by April 30, 2019,” said the Air Force.

Only SpaceX and ULA bid on the GPS III satellite launch contract.

“This award is the result of a competitive acquisition with two offers received. Fiscal 2016 space procurement funds in the amount of $96,500,490 are being obligated at the time of award.”

The Air Force opened up military launch contracts to competitive bidding in 2015 after certifying SpaceX as a qualified bidder to launch the nation’s most critical and highly valuable national security satellites on their Falcon 9 booster.

Until 2015, ULA had a near sole source contract with the USAF as the only company certified to bid on and launch those most critical national security satellites. New space upstart SpaceX, founded by billionaire CEO Elon Musk, then forced the bidding issue by filing a lawsuit suing the Air Force.

In response to the lost GPS-III bid, ULA touted their demonstrated record of 100 percent success launching more than 115 satellites.

“United Launch Alliance continues to believe a best value launch service competition with evaluation of mission success and assurance, and past performance including demonstrated schedule reliability, is appropriate and needed for the Phase 1A missions given the technical complexities of rocket launch services and their critical significance to the war fighter and U.S. national security,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told Universe Today.

“Over the past decade, ULA has provided unmatched reliability with 100 percent mission success and ensured more than 115 satellites were delivered safely to their orbits each and every time. We look forward to continuing to provide the best value launch services to enable our customers’ critical missions.”

ULA Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-9) tactical communications satellite for the U.S. Air Force and international partners from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, at 8:18 p.m. EDT on Mar. 18, 2017, in this long exposure photo taken on base. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The most recent ULA launch for the Air Force took place days ago involving the stunning Delta blastoff of the WGS-9 high speed communications satellite on March 18, 2017.

SpaceX has suffered a pair of calamitous Falcon 9 rocket failures in June 2015 and Sept. 2016, destroying both the rocket and payloads for NASA and the AMOS-6 communications satellite respectively.

So the U.S. Air Force should definitely be balancing risk vs. reward with regard to lower pricing and factoring in rocket robustness and reliability, regarding launches of national security satellites which could cost into the multi-billions of dollars, take years to manufacture and are not swiftly replaceable in case of catastrophic launch failures.

ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket successfully delivered the final GPS satellite in the IIF series to orbit for the US Air Force on Feb 5, 2016.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the GPS IIF-12 mission lifted off at 8:38 a.m. EST on Feb. 5, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

At that time the Global Positioning System (GPS) IIF-12 navigation satellite completed the constellation of GPS IIF satellites that are critical to both military and civilian users on a 24/7 basis.

The Atlas V rocket delivered the GPS IIF-12 satellite to a semi-synchronous circular orbit at an altitude of approximately 11,000 nautical miles above Earth.

“GPS III is the next generation of GPS satellites that will introduce new capabilities to meet the higher demands of both military and civilian users,” according to the USAF.

“GPS III is expected to provide improved anti-jamming capabilities as well as improved accuracy for precision navigation and timing. It will incorporate the common L1C signal which is compatible with the European Space Agency’s Galileo global navigation satellite system and compliment current services with the addition of new civil and military signals.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Powerful USAF Satcom Propelled to Orbit by Delta Provides Dinnertime Launch Delight; Photo/Video Launch Gallery

Ignition and liftoff of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 highest capacity satcom to orbit for the U.S. Air Force at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Ignition and liftoff of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 highest capacity satcom to orbit for the U.S. Air Force at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – The most powerful US Air Force military communications satellite ever built was propelled to orbit by a ULA Delta IV rocket that provided a dinnertime launch delight Wednesday evening for the crowds of spectators gathered around America’s premier gateway to space.

Check out this expanding gallery of launch photos and videos from several space journalist colleagues and friends and myself- spread throughout the Florida Space Coast region – giving a comprehensive look as the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-8) mission streaked to orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket from Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 6:53 p.m. EST on Dec. 7, 2016.

ULA Delta IV rocket and WGS-8 USAF sitcom streak to orbit at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen from Melbourne, FL.   Credit: Julian Leek
ULA Delta IV rocket and WGS-8 USAF sitcom streak to orbit at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, as seen from Melbourne, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

The United Launch Alliance Delta IV Medium+ rocket successfully streaked to the heavens through nearly crystal clear skies to deliver WGS-8 to a supersynchronous transfer orbit.

Spectators were rewarded with a picture perfect view of the rocket as it ascended quickly and arced over to the African continent.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-8) mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

WGS-8 is the first in a newly upgraded series of a trio of WGS satellites built by Boeing that will nearly double the communications bandwidth of prior WGS models.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit after blastoff at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, carrying USAF WGS-8 tactical sitcom.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket streaks to orbit after blastoff at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, carrying USAF WGS-8 tactical sitcom. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Liftoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying WGS-8 satcom to orbit for USAF at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit:  Julian Leek
Liftoff of ULA Delta IV rocket carrying WGS-8 satcom to orbit for USAF at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Julian Leek

Watch this video compilation showing the launch from several different vantage points.

Video Caption: A collage of up-close video cameras ringed around Space launch Complex 37 capture Delta 4 launch of the WGS-8 satellite on 12/7/2016 from Pad 37 of the CCAFS, FL. Credit: Jeff Seibert

ULA Delta IV rocket lifts off carrying WGS-8 satcom to orbit for USAF at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from LC-39 gantry. Credit:  Chuck Higgins
ULA Delta IV rocket lifts off carrying WGS-8 satcom to orbit for USAF at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from LC-39 gantry. Credit: Chuck Higgins
ULA Delta IV rocket lifts off carrying WGS-8 satcom to orbit for USAF at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from LC-39 gantry.  Credit:  Chuck Higgins
ULA Delta IV rocket lifts off carrying WGS-8 satcom to orbit for USAF at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from LC-39 gantry. Credit: Chuck Higgins

WGS-8 is the first of three launches from the Cape this December. A Pegasus XL rocket will launch on Dec. 12 carrying NASA’s CGYNSS hurricane monitoring satellites. And an Atlas V will launch on Dec. 18 with the EchoStar 19 comsat.

ULA Delta IV poised for blastoff with the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Dec. 7, 2016.  Credit: Lane Hermann
ULA Delta IV poised for blastoff with the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Dec. 7, 2016. Credit: Lane Hermann

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket with USAF WGS-8 satcom at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from Titusville. Credit:  Ashley Crouch
Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket with USAF WGS-8 satcom at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from Titusville. Credit: Ashley Crouch
Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket with USAF WGS-8 satcom at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from Titusville. Credit:  Ashley Crouch
Blastoff of ULA Delta IV rocket with USAF WGS-8 satcom at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 7, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., as seen from Titusville. Credit: Ashley Crouch
ULA Delta IV rocket poised for blastoff with the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Dec. 7, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Delta IV rocket poised for blastoff with the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force from pad 37 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, on Dec. 7, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-37 at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the WGS-8 mission for the U.S. Air Force launches at 6:53 p.m EDT on Dec. 16, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Hurricane Matthew Grazes Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral

Aerial view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Oct. 8, 2016 by damage assessment and recovery team surveying the damage at KSC the day after Hurricane Matthew passed by Cape Canaveral on Oct. 7, 2016 packing sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107 mph.  Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
Aerial view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Oct. 8, 2016 by damage assessment and recovery team surveying the damage at KSC the day after Hurricane Matthew passed by Cape Canaveral on Oct. 7, 2016 packing sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107 mph. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

The Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and the major population centers along the Florida Space Coast were spared from major damage to infrastructure, homes and business after the deadly Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew grazed the region with 107 mph winds rather than making a direct impact as feared.

Although some of the base and Space Coast coastal and residential areas did suffer significant destruction most were very lucky to have escaped the hurricanes onslaught in relatively good shape, when it stayed at sea rather than making the forecast direct hit.

KSC’s iconic 525 foot tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the Complex 39 launch pads and the active launch pads at CCAFS are all standing and intact – as damage evaluations are currently underway by damage assessment and recovery teams from NASA and the US Air Force.

As Hurricane Matthew approached from the south Friday morning Oct. 7 along Florida’s Atlantic coastline, it wobbled east and west, until it finally veered ever so slightly some 5 miles to the East – thus saving much of the Space Coast launch facilities and hundreds of thousands of home and businesses from catastrophic damage from the expected winds and storm surges.

“Hurricane Matthew passed Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center …. with sustained winds of 90 mph with gusts to 107 mph,” on Friday, NASA officials reported.

The storm passed “the space center about 26 miles off the tip of Cape Canaveral.”

Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew track during the late evening of 6 Oct 2016.  Credit: NASA/NOAA
Cat 4 Hurricane Matthew track during the late evening of 6 Oct 2016. Credit: NASA/NOAA

KSC and CCAFS did suffer some damage to buildings, downed power lines and some flooding and remains closed.

The Damage Assessment and Recovery Teams have entered the facilities today, Oct. 8, and are surveying the areas right now to learn the extent of the damage and report on when they can reopen for normal operations.

“After the initial inspection flight Saturday morning, it was determined that the center received some isolated roof damage, damaged support buildings, a few downed power lines, and limited water intrusion,” NASA reported late today.

Hurricane force wind from Hurricane Matthew throw a concession stand up against the Spaceflight Now building at the LC 39 Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 7, 2016.  Credit: NASA/Cory Huston
Hurricane force wind from Hurricane Matthew throw a concession stand up against the Spaceflight Now building at the LC 39 Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 7, 2016. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

Inspection teams are methodically going from building to building this weekend to assess Matthew’s impact.

“Since safety is our utmost concern, teams of inspectors are going from building-to-building assessing damage.”

It will take time to determine when the center can resume operations.

“Due to the complexity of this effort, teams need time to thoroughly inspect all buildings and roads prior to opening the Kennedy Space Center for regular business operations.”

Not until after a full inspection of the center will a list of damaged buildings and equipment be available. The next update will be available no earlier than Sunday afternoon.

A “ride-out team” of 116 remained at KSC and at work inside the emergency operations center in the Launch Control Center located adjacent to the VAB during the entire Hurricane period.

View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch Control Center and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site.   NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch  NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch Control Center and Mobile Launcher from the KSC Launch Complex 39 Press Site. NASA is upgrading the VAB with new platforms to assemble and launch NASA’s Space Launch System rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It took until Friday afternoon for winds to drop below 40 knots start preliminary damage assessments.

“KSC is now in a “Weather Safe” condition as of 2 p.m. Friday. While there is damage to numerous facilities at KSC, it consists largely roof damage, window damage, water intrusion, damage to modular buildings and to building siding.”

Teams are also assessing the CCAFS launch pads, buildings and infrastructure. Some buildings suffered severe damage.

“We have survived a catastrophic event that could have easily been cataclysmic. It is only by grace and a slight turn in Matthew’s path that our base and our barrier island homes were not destroyed or covered in seven feet of water,” wrote Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, commander of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, in a Facebook update.

“There is a lot of debris throughout the base.”

“We are still experiencing deficiencies in critical infrastructure, consistent power, emergency services, communications and hazardous material inspections that make portions of our base uninhabitable or potentially dangerous.”

Severely damaged building on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: 45th Space Wing
Severely damaged building on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: 45th Space Wing

Of particular importance is Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) where the next scheduled liftoff is slated for Nov. 4.

The launch involves America’s newest and most advanced weather satellite on Nov 4. It’s named GOES-R and was slated for blastoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station pad 41 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

The launch facilities will have to be thoroughly inspected before the launch can proceed.

The satellite is in the final stages of preparation at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility in Titusville, FL as I recently observed during an up close visit in the High Bay cleanroom.

The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite - R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULS Atlas V on Nov 4, 2016.  GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of the planned launch on a ULA Atlas V on Nov 4, 2016. GOES-R will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The major Space Coast cities in Brevard county suffered much less damage then feared, although some 500,000 residents lost power.

Local government officials allowed most causeway bridges to the barrier islands to be reopened by Friday evening, several local colleagues told me.

Here’s some images of damage to the coastal piers, town and a destroyed house from the Melbourne Beach and Satellite Beach areas from my space colleague Julian Leek.

Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Home destroyed by fire in Satellite Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Navaho missile on display at the CCAFS south gate suffered severe damage from Hurricane Matthew and crumpled to the ground.  Credit: 45th Space Wing
Navaho missile on display at the CCAFS south gate suffered severe damage from Hurricane Matthew and crumpled to the ground. Credit: 45th Space Wing
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek
Local damage in South Melbourne Beach. Credit: Julian Leek

Big Breach In 2nd Stage Helium System Likely Triggered Catastrophic Falcon 9 Explosion: SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

Investigators have determined that a “large breach” in the second stage helium system likely triggered the catastrophic Falcon 9 launch pad explosion that suddenly destroyed the rocket and Israeli commercial payload during a routine fueling test three weeks ago, SpaceX announced today, Friday, Sept. 23.

However, the root cause of the rupture and Sept. 1 disaster have not been determined, according to SpaceX, based on the results thus far discerned by the official accident investigation team probing the incident that forced an immediate halt to all SpaceX launches.

The Accident Investigation Team (AIT) is composed of SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts.

“At this stage of the investigation, preliminary review of the data and debris suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place,” SpaceX reported on the firm’s website in today’s anomaly update dated Sept. 23- the first in three weeks.

The helium system is used to pressurize the liquid oxygen tank from inside.

The explosion took place without warning at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 launch facility at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Sept. 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl, during a routine fueling test and engine firing test as liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants were being loade into the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9. Launch of the AMOS-6 comsat was scheduled two days later.

Indeed the time between the first indication of an anomaly to loss of signal was vanishingly short – only about “93 milliseconds” of elapsed time, SpaceX reported.

93 milliseconds amounts to less than 1/10th of a second. That conclusion is based on examining 3,000 channels of data.

SpaceX reported that investigators “are currently scouring through approximately 3,000 channels of engineering data along with video, audio and imagery.”

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload and damaged the pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Both the $60 million SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in a massive fireball that erupted suddenly during the planned pre-launch fueling and hot fire engine ignition test at pad 40. There were no injuries since the pad had been cleared.

The Sept. 1 calamity also counts as the second time a Falcon 9 has exploded in 15 months and the second time it originated in the second stage and will call into question the rocket’s reliability.

The first failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, when a strut holding the helium tank inside the liquid oxygen tank failed in flight during the Dragon CRS-7 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

However SpaceX says that although both incidents involved the second stage, they are unrelated – even as they continue seeking to determine the root cause.

“All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated. Through the fault tree and data review process, we have exonerated any connection with last year’s CRS-7 mishap.”

And they are thoroughly reviewing all rocket components.

“At SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA, our manufacturing and production is continuing in a methodical manner, with teams continuing to build engines, tanks, and other systems as they are exonerated from the investigation.”

But SpaceX will have to conduct an even more thorough analysis of every aspect of their designs and manufacturing processes and supply chain exactly because the cause of this disaster is different and apparently went undetected during the CRS-7 accident review.

And before Falcon 9 launches are allowed to resume, the root cause must be determined, effective fixes must be identified and effective remedies must be verified and implemented.

Large scale redesign of the second stage helium system may be warranted since two independent failure modes have occurred. Others could potentially be lurking. It’s the job of the AIT to find out – especially because American astronauts will be flying atop this rocket to the ISS starting in 2017 or 2018 and their lives depend on its being reliable and robust.

After the last failure in June 2015, it took nearly six months before Falcon 9 launches were resumed.

Launches were able to recommence relatively quickly because the June 2015 disaster took place at altitude and there was no damage to pad 40.

That’s not the case with the Sept. 1 calamity where pad 40 suffered significant damage and will be out of action for quite a few months at least as the damage is catalogued and evaluated. Then a repair, refurbishment, testing and recertification plan needs to be completed to rebuild and return pad 40 to flight status. Furthermore SpaceX will have to manufacture a new transporter-erector.

Since the explosion showered debris over a wide area, searchers have been prowling surrounding areas and other nearby pads at the Cape and Kennedy Space Center, hunting for evidentiary remains that could provide clues or answers to the mystery of what’s at the root cause this time.

Searchers have recovered “the majority of debris from the incident has been recovered, photographed, labeled and catalogued, and is now in a hangar for inspection and use during the investigation.”

To date they have not found any evidence for debris beyond the immediate area of LC-40, the company said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had previously reported via twitter that the rocket failure originated somewhere in the upper stage near the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank during fueling test operations at the launch pad, for what is known as a hot fire engine ignition test of all nine first stage Merlin 1D engines.

Engineers were in the final stages of loading the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene propellants that power the Falcon 9 first stage for the static fire test which is a full launch dress rehearsal. The anomaly took place about 8 minutes before the planned engine hot fire ignition.

And the incident took place less than two days before the scheduled Falcon 9 launch of AMOS-6 on Sept. 3 from pad 40.

The explosion also caused extensive damage to the launch pad as well as to the rockets transporter erector, or strongback, that holds the rocket in place until minutes before liftoff, and ground support equipment (GSE) around the pad – as seen in my recent photos of the pad taken a week after the explosion during the OSIRIS-REx launch campaign.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Fortunately, many other pad areas and infrastructure survived intact or in “good condition.”

“While substantial areas of the pad systems were affected, the Falcon Support Building adjacent to the pad was unaffected, and per standard procedure was unoccupied at the time of the anomaly. The new liquid oxygen farm – e.g. the tanks and plumbing that hold our super-chilled liquid oxygen – was unaffected and remains in good working order. The RP-1 (kerosene) fuel farm was also largely unaffected. The pad’s control systems are also in relatively good condition.”

The rocket disaster was coincidentally captured as it unfolded in stunning detail in a spectacular up close video recorded by my space journalist colleague Mike Wagner at USLaunchReport.

Watch this video:

Video Caption: SpaceX – Static Fire Anomaly – AMOS-6 – 09-01-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

Even as investigators and teams of SpaceX engineers sift through the data and debris looking for the root cause of the helium tank breach, other SpaceX engineering teams and workers prepare to restart launches from the other SpaceX pad on the Florida Space Coast- namely Pad 39A on the Kennedy Space Center.

So the ambitious aerospace firm is already setting its sights on a ‘Return to Flight’ launch as early as November of this year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said on Sept. 13 at a French space conference.

“We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight in November, the November timeframe,” Shotwell announced during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week Conference in Paris, France – as reported here last week.

SpaceX reconfirmed the November target today.

“We will work to resume our manifest as quickly as responsible once the cause of the anomaly has been identified by the Accident Investigation Team.”

“Pending the results of the investigation, we anticipate returning to flight as early as the November timeframe.”

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As SpaceX was launching from pad 40, they have been simultaneously renovating and refurbishing NASA’s former shuttle launch pad at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – from which the firm hopes to launch the new Falcon Heavy booster in 2017 as well as human rated launches of the Falcon 9 with the Crew Dragon to the ISS.

So now SpaceX will utilize pad 39A for commercial Falcon 9 launches as well. But much works remains to finish pad work as I recently witnessed.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX
Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Hopes for Falcon 9 Return to Flight in November; Shotwell

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – Less than two weeks after a still mysterious launch pad explosion utterly destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during testing on Sept. 1, the bold and seemingly undaunted firm is already setting its sights on a ‘Return to Flight’ launch as early as November of this year, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Tuesday.

“We’re anticipating getting back to flight, being down for about three months, so getting back to flight in November, the November timeframe,” Shotwell announced on Sept. 13, during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week Conference being held in Paris, France.

The catastrophic Sept. 1 launch pad explosion took place without warning at SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 launch facility at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl during a routine fueling test.

Both the $60 million SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in a massive fireball that erupted suddenly during a routine and planned pre-launch fueling and engine ignition test at pad 40 on Sept. 1.

However, SpaceX is still seeking to determine the root cause of the catastrophe, which must be fully determined, corrected and rectified before any new Falcon 9 launches can actually occur.

Indeed nailing down the root cause has thus far confounded SpaceX investigators and was labeled as the “most difficult and complex failure” in its history said SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk in a series of update tweets on Sept. 9. He also sought the public’s help in ascertaining the elusive cause via any audio/video recordings.

The rocket failure originated somewhere in the upper stage near the liquid oxygen (LOX) tank during fueling test operations at the launch pad, for what is known as a hot fire engine ignition test of all nine first stage Merlin 1D engines, said Musk.

Engineers were in the final stages of loading the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene propellants that power the Falcon 9 first stage for the static fire test which is a full launch dress rehearsal. The anomaly took place about 8 minutes before the planned engine hot fire ignition.

Shotwell also stated that the launch would occur from SpaceX’s other Florida Space Coast launch pad – namely the former Space Shuttle Launch Complex 39A on the Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX also operates a third launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“We would launch from the East Coast on Pad 39A in the November timeframe. And then Vandenberg would be available … for our other assorted customers,” Shotwell stated.

SpaceX has signed a long term lease with NASA to use Pad 39A.

Shotwell did not say which payload would be the first to launch.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The incident took place less than two days before the scheduled Falcon 9 launch of AMOS-6 on Sept. 3 from pad 40.

The Sept. 1 calamity disaster also counts as the second time a Falcon 9 has exploded in 15 months and will call into question the rocket’s reliability. The first failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-9 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

While launching from pad 40, SpaceX has simultaneously been renovating and refurbishing NASA’s former shuttle launch at Complex 39A – from which the firm hopes to launch the new Falcon Heavy booster as well as human rated launches of the Falcon 9 with the Crew Dragon to the ISS.

And now according to Shotwell, SpaceX is expanding the scope of operations at pad 39A and intends to use it for commercial Falcon 9 launches as well – while they work to complete repairs to pad 40 which suffered significant damage, as I witnessed and just reported here.

Ongoing work at Pad 39A was clearly visible to this author and other media this past week during NASA’s OSIRIS-REx launch campaign.

SpaceX will have to finish the pad 39A upgrades soon in order to have any hopes of achieving a November return to flight launch date, and a lot of work remains to be done. For example the shuttle era Rotating Service Structure (RSS) is still standing. The timing for its demolishment has not been announced, according to a source.

Prior to launching from 39A, SpaceX would presumably roll out a Falcon 9 rocket to conduct fit checks and conduct a full launch dress rehearsal and first stage static hot fire engine test to confirm that all the newly installed equipment, gear and fueling lines, pumps, etc. are fully functional, operational and safe.

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The rocket disaster was coincidentally captured as it unfolded in stunning detail in a spectacular up close video recorded by my space journalist colleague at USLaunchReport – shown below.

Here is the full video from my space journalist friend and colleague Mike Wagner of USLaunchReport:

Video Caption: SpaceX – Static Fire Anomaly – AMOS-6 – 09-01-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 had been slated for an overnight blastoff on Saturday, September 3 at 3 a.m. from pad 40 with the 6 ton AMOS-6 telecommunications satellite valued at some $200 million.

The AMOS-6 communications satellite was built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Space Communication Ltd. It was planned to provide communication services including direct satellite home internet for Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

The Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 satellite were swiftly consumed in a huge fireball and thunderous blasts accompanied by a vast plume of smoke rising from the wreckage that was visible for many miles around the Florida Space Coast.

“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation,” Musk tweeted several hours after the launch pad explosion.

“Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.”

The explosion also caused extensive damage to the rockets transporter erector, or strongback, that holds the rocket in place until minutes before liftoff, and ground support equipment (GSE) around the pad – as seen in my new photos of the pad taken a week after the explosion.

Dangling cables and gear such as pulley’s and more can clearly be seen to still be present as the strongback remains raised at pad 40. The strongback raises the rocket at the pad and also houses multiple umbilical line for electrical power, purge gases, computer communications and more.

One of the four lightning masts is also visibly burnt and blackened – much like what occurred after the catastrophic Orbital ATK Antares rocket exploded moments after liftoff from a NASA Wallops launch pad on Oct 28, 2014 and witnessed by this author.

Black soot also appears to cover some area of the pads ground support equipment in the new photos.

So it’s very likely that repairs to and re-certification of pad 40 will take at least several months.

Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The last successful SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 took place on Aug. 14 with the JCSAT 16 Japanese telecom satellite.

The first stage from the JCSAT 16 launch was concurrently recovered with an amazing propulsive soft landing on the OCISLY droneship platform at sea.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

And Shotwell pointed to the numerous successful SpaceX launches in her conference remarks.

“So now let’s look to the good. We did have an extraordinary launch year. We launched 9 times in just under 8 months, in the past year successfully,” Shotwell elaborated.

Shotwell was referring to the upgraded, full thrust version of the Falcon 9 first launched in Dec. 2015

“We rolled out a new vehicle, which we flew last December. And that vehicle was the vehicle that was designed to land.”

“And so we did recover the first stage six times. Twice back on land. And four times on the droneship. Which I think is an extraordinary move for the industry.”

“I don’t know that everyone appreciates it, but certainly that is a leap forward in launches for our customers.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Indeed, just 2 days before the launch pad explosion, SpaceX signed the first contract ever to utilize one of their recycled and ‘flight-proven rockets to launch the SES-10 telecom satellite for Luxembourg based SES.

SpaceX has a huge manifest of contracted missions and is backlogged with approximately 70 launches worth over $10 billion.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background - as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background – as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Bound for Bennu, OSIRIS-REx Begins Trailblazing Asteroid Sampling Sortie for Life’s Origins – Sunset Launch Gallery

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study.  Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016 in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter.  Note the newly install crew access arm and white room for astronaut flights atop Atlas starting in early 2018.   Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016 in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter. Note the newly installed crew access arm and white room for astronaut flights atop Atlas starting in early 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Bound for Bennu, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx robotic explorer began a trailblazing 7 year round trip sampling sortie on Sept. 8 in search of the origin of life with a spectacular sky show – thrilling spectators ringing the Florida Space Coast.

Hordes of space enthusiasts from all across the globe descended on the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral region for the chance of a lifetime to witness a once in a lifetime liftoff to the carbon rich asteroid – which could potentially bring back samples infused with the organic chemicals like amino acids that are the building blocks of life as we know it.

NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft departed Earth with an on time engine ignition of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on Thursday, September 8 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Blastoff of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from Playalinda Beach.  Credit: Jillian Laudick
Blastoff of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from Playalinda Beach. Credit: Jillian Laudick

Everything went exactly according to plan for the daring mission bolding seeking to gather rocks and soil from Bennu – using an ingenious robotic arm named TAGSAM – and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

“We got everything just exactly perfect,” said Dante Lauretta, the principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, at the post launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. “We hit all our milestone within seconds of predicts.

The space rock measures about the size of a small mountain at about a third of a mile in diameter.

And the picture perfect near sunset launch rewarded photographers from near and far with a spectacular series of richly hued photo and video recordings.

So I’ve gathered here a variety of launch imagery from multiple vantage points shot by friends, colleagues and myself – for the enjoyment of readers of Universe Today and Beyond!

Liftoff of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Julian Leek
Liftoff of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

As you’ll see and hear the ULA Atlas V rocket integrated with OSIRIS-Rex on top thundered off the Cape’s pad 41 and shot skyward straight up along an equatorial path into Florida’s sun.

From every vantage point the rocket and its ever expanding vapor trail were visible for some 4 or 5 minutes or more. From my location on the roof of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) the rocket finally arched over nearly straight above us and the sun produced a magnificent thin and nearly straight shadow of the vapor trail on the ground running out to the Atlantic Ocean towards Africa.

Blastoff of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from Playalinda Beach.  Credit: John Kraus
Blastoff of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from Playalinda Beach. Credit: John Kraus

It was truly an unforgettable sight to behold. And folks at Playalinda Beach, the best public viewing spot just a few miles north of pad 40 had an uninhibited view of the rocket to the base of the pad – while they waded and swam in the oceans waters with waves crashing on shore as the Atlas rocket blasted to space.

OSIRIS-REx separated as planned from the Atlas V rockets liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen fueled second stage rocket to fly free at 8:04 p.m. on Sept. 8 – 55 minutes after launch.

The pair of solar arrays deployed as planned to provide the probes life giving power.

The spacecraft was built by prime contractor Lockheed.

“The spacecraft is healthy and functioning properly,” Richard Kuhns, Lockheed Martin OSIRIS-REx program manager, told me in an interview at the post-launch briefing.

Members of the OSIRIS-REx mission team celebrate the successful spacecraft launch on Sept. 8, 2016 atop ULA Atlas V at the post-launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta is 4th from right,  NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green is center, 5th from left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Members of the OSIRIS-REx mission team celebrate the successful spacecraft launch on Sept. 8, 2016 atop ULA Atlas V at the post-launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta is 4th from right, NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green is center, 5th from left. Richard Kuhns, Lockheed Martin OSIRIS-REx program manager, 2nd from right. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“The primary objective of the OSIRIS-Rex mission is to bring back pristine material from the surface of the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told Universe Today in a prelaunch interview in the KSC cleanroom with the spacecraft as the probe was undergoing final preparations for shipment to the launch pad.

“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation.”

“It records the very first material that formed from the earliest stages of solar system formation. And we are really interested in the evolution of carbon during that phase. Particularly the key prebiotic molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids, phosphates and sugars that build up. These are basically the biomolecules for all of life.”

The asteroid is 1,614-foot (500 m) in diameter and crosses Earth’s orbit around the sun every six years.

After a two year flight through space, including an Earth swing by for a gravity assisted speed boost in 2017, OSIRIS-REx will reach Bennu in Fall 2018 to begin about 2 years of study in orbit to determine the physical and chemical properties of the asteroid in extremely high resolution.

While orbiting Bennu starting in 2018 it will move in close to explore the asteroid for about two years with its suite of science instruments, scanning in visible and infrared light. After a thorough site selection, it will move carefully towards the surface and extend the 11 foot long TAGSAM robotic arm and snatch pristine soil samples containing organic materials from the surface using the TAGSAM collection dish over just 3 to 5 seconds.

Once a good sample collection is confirmed, the dish will then be placed inside the Earth return canister and be brought back to Earth for study by researchers using all of the most sophisticated science instruments available to humankind.

Using the 11 foot long TAGSAM robotic arm that functions somewhat like a pogo stick, OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth on Sept 24, 2023. It has the capacity to scoop up to about 2 kg or more.

ULA Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
ULA Atlas V rocket lifts off on September 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The two stage ULA Atlas V performed flawlessly and delivered OSIRIS-Rex into a hyperbolic trajectory away from Earth.

The 189 foot tall ULA Atlas V rocket launched in the rare 411 configuration for only the 3rd time on this mission – which is the 65th for the Atlas V.

The Atlas 411 vehicle includes a 4-meter diameter large Payload Fairing (PLF) and one solid rocket booster that augments the first stage. The Atlas booster for this mission is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A.

The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of thrust at sea level.

The strap on solid delivers approximately 348,500 pounds of thrust.

The Centaur delivers 22, 230 lbf of thrust and burns liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.

The solid was jettisoned at 139 seconds after liftoff.

Launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from LC-39 Gantry.  Credit: Jen Saxby
Launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from LC-39 Gantry. Credit: Jen Saxby

This is ULA’s eighth launch in 2016 and the 111th successful launch since the company was formed in December 2006.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx blasts off to asteroid Bennu on ULA Atlas V rocket prior on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, as seen from the VAB roof.  Credit: Lane Hermann/SpaceHeadNews
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx blasts off to asteroid Bennu on ULA Atlas V rocket prior on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, as seen from the VAB roof. Credit: Lane Hermann/SpaceHeadNews

OSIRIS-REx will return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.

Watch these pair of up close videos (from myself and Jeff Seibert) captured directly at the pad with the sights and sounds of the fury of launch:

Video Caption: ULA Atlas V rocket lifts off on September 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Video Caption: Compilation of my launch videos from the ULA Atlas 5 launch in support of the NASA OSIRIS_REx asteroid sample return mission to the asteroid Bennu (#101955). It was launched on September 8th, 2016 from Pad 41 of CCAFS. It is scheduled to land in UTAH with asteroid samples on September 24, 2023. Credit: Jeff Seibert

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

Launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from VAB roof.  Credit:  J.Sekora/SEKORAPHOTO
Launch of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from VAB roof. Credit: J.Sekora/SEKORAPHOTO

Watch for Ken’s continuing OSIRIS-REx mission and launch reporting from on site at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft streaks to orbit on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from Playalinda Beach.  Credit: Jillian Laudick
NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft streaks to orbit on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL as seen from Playalinda Beach. Credit: Jillian Laudick
Liftoff of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Liftoff of NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sampling spacecraft on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study.  Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 Failure Investigation ‘Most Difficult’ Ever: Musk

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL – More than a week after the catastrophic launch pad explosion that eviscerated a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a fueling test, the bold and burgeoning aerospace firm is still confounded by the “most difficult and complex failure” in its history, and is asking the public for help in nailing down the elusive cause – says SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk in a new series of tweets, that also seeks the public’s help in the complex investigation.

“Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk tweeted on Friday, Sept. 9 about the disaster that took place without warning on Space Launch Complex-40 at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. on Sept. 1, 2016.

Both the $60 million SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in a massive fireball that erupted suddenly during a routine and planned pre-launch fueling and engine ignition test at pad 40 on Wednesday morning Sep. 1.

“Still working on the Falcon fireball investigation,” Musk stated.

Check out my new up close photos of launch pad 40 herein – showing dandling cables and pad damage – taken over the past few days during NASA’s OSIRIS-REx launch campaign which successfully soared to space on Sept 8. from the adjacent pad at Space Launch Complex-41.

The rocket failure originated somewhere in the upper stage during fueling test operations at the launch pad for what is known as a hot fire engine ignition test of all nine first stage Merlin 1D engines, said Musk.

However, the countdown dress rehearsal had not yet reached the point of ignition and the Merlin engines were still several minutes away from typically firing for a few seconds as the rocket was to be held down during the pre-planned hot fire test.

“Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation. Engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source,” Musk elaborated.

Engineers were in the final stages of loading the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene propellants that power the Falcon 9 first stage for the static fire test which is a full launch dress rehearsal.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The explosion mystery and its root causes are apparently so deep that SpaceX is asking the public for help by sending in “any recordings of the event” which may exist, beyond what is already known.

“If you have audio, photos or videos of our anomaly last week, please send to [email protected] Material may be useful for investigation,” Musk requested by twitter.

Indications of an initial “bang” moments before the calamity are also bewildering investigators.

“Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off. May come from rocket or something else.”

The explosion is also being jointly investigated by multiple US Federal agency’s.

“Support & advice from @NASA, @FAA, @AFPAA & others much appreciated. Please email any recordings of the event to [email protected]

The incident took place less than two days before the scheduled Falcon 9 launch on Sept. 3.

It also caused extensive damage to the rockets transporter erector, or strongback, that holds the rocket in place until minutes before liftoff, and ground support equipment (GSE) around the pad – as seen in my new photos of the pad taken a week after the explosion.

Dangling cables and gear such as pulley’s and more can clearly be seen to still be present as the strongback remains raised at pad 40. The strongback raises the rocket at the pad and also houses multiple umbilical line for electrical power, purge gases, computer communications and more.

One of the four lightning masts is also visibly burnt and blackened – much like what occurred after the catastrophic Orbital ATK Antares rocket exploded moments after liftoff from a NASA Wallops launch pad on Oct 28, 2014 and witnessed by this author.

Black soot also appears to cover some area of the pads ground support equipment in the new photos.

US Air Force personnel immediately jumped into action to assess the situation, set up roadblocks and look for signs of blast debris and “detect, dispose and render safe any possible explosive threats.”

However SpaceX has not released a full description of the damage to the pad and GSE. It cost approximately $15 Million to repair the Antares pad and flights have not yet resumed – nearly 2 years after that disaster.

Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of top of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables (at right) as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The rocket disaster was coincidentally captured as it unfolded in stunning detail in a spectacular up close video recorded by my space journalist colleague at USLaunchReport – shown below.

Here is the full video from my space journalist friend and colleague Mike Wagner of USLaunchReport:

Video Caption: SpaceX – Static Fire Anomaly – AMOS-6 – 09-01-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 had been slated for an overnight blastoff on Saturday, September 3 at 3 a.m. from pad 40 with the 6 ton AMOS-6 telecommunications satellite valued at some $200 million.

Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Falcon rocket and AMOS-6 satellite were swiftly consumed in a huge fireball and thunderous blasts accompanied by a vast plume of smoke rising from the wreckage that was visible for many miles around the Florida Space Coast.

“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation,” Musk tweeted several hours after the launch pad explosion.

“Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.”

Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016  after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Aerial view of pad and strongback damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 as seen from the VAB roof on Sept. 8, 2016 after fueling test explosion destroyed the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Thankfully there were no injuries to anyone – because the pad is always cleared of all personnel during these types of extremely hazardous launch complex operations.

“The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and there were no injuries,” SpaceX reported in a statement.

“We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be provided as they become available.”

This also marks the second time a Falcon 9 has exploded in 15 months and will call into question the rocket’s reliability. The first failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during the Dragon CRS-9 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

All SpaceX launches are on hold until a thorough investigation is conducted, the root cause is determined, and effective fixes and remedies are identified and instituted.

After the last failure, it took nearly six months before Falcon 9 launches were resumed.

Any announcement of a ‘Return to Flight’ following this latest launch failure is likely to be some time off given the thus far inscrutable nature of the anomaly.

The planned engine test was being conducted as part of routine preparations for the scheduled liftoff of the Falcon 9 on Saturday, September 3, with an Israeli telecommunications satellite that would have also been used by Facebook.

The AMOS-6 communications satellite was built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Space Communication Ltd. It was planned to provide communication services including direct satellite home internet for Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

SpaceX is simultaneously renovating and refurbishing NASA’s former shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center at Pad 39A – from which the firm hopes to launch the new Falcon Heavy booster as well as human rated launches of the Falcon 9.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Ongoing work at Pad 39A was clearly visible to this author and other media this past week during NASA’s OSIRIS-REx launch campaign.

SpaceX has indicated they hope to have the pad upgrades complete by November, but a lot of work remains to be done. For example the shuttle era Rotating Service Structure (RSS) is still standing. The timing for its demolishment has not been announced.

Damage at  SpaceX Launch Complex-40 following Sept. 1, 2016 launch pad explosion.  Credit: Lane Hermann
Damage at SpaceX Launch Complex-40 following Sept. 1, 2016 launch pad explosion. Credit: Lane Hermann

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Up close view of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of mangled SpaceX Falcon 9 strongback with dangling cables as seen on Sept. 7 after prelaunch explosion destroyed the rocket and AMOS-6 payload at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sept. 1, 2016 . Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

Journey to Bennu – Today Sept. 8: Watch the Trailer, Watch the Earth Departure Launch Live

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is poised for liftoff on a 7 year Journey to astreroid  Bennu and Back atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is poised for liftoff on a 7 year Journey to asteroid Bennu and Back atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Today is ‘Earth Departure Day’ for OSIRIS-REx, NASA’s first mission to snatch “pristine materials” from the surface of a near Earth asteroid named Bennu and deliver them back to Earth in seven years on a mission to unlock mysteries on the formation of our Solar System and ourselves 4.5 Billion years ago.

The 4.5 Billion mile roundtrip ‘Journey to Bennu and Back’ begins today. All systems are GO for a spectacular dinner-time blastoff of NASAs OSIRIS-REx spacecraft from the Florida Space Coast.

Earth departure for NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is slated for shortly before sunset this evening, Thursday, September 8 at 7:05 p.m. EDT.

Excited spectators are filling local area hotels for this once in a lifetime mission to ‘Bennu and Back.’

Bennu is a small, carbon-rich asteroid – meaning it contains significant amounts of organic molecules, the stuff of which life is made.

Bennu is only about a third of mile in diameter, measuring 500 meters or 1,614 feet across and it crosses Earth’s orbit around the sun every six years.

You can watch the sure to be a spectacular launch live in person here in sunny Florida or live via a choice of webcasts.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx launch coverage will be broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 4:30 p.m. EDT Sept. 8, as well as on a ULA webcast.

You can watch the launch live at NASA TV at – http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

You can watch the launch live at ULA at – www.ulalaunch.com

Today’s weather forecast remains very promising and is currently 80% GO for favorable conditions. The only concern is for cumulus clouds.

There are 3 opportunities in a row to launch OSIRIS-Rex.

In case of a delay 24 or 48 hour delay, the forecast drops only slightly to 70% GO.

Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample return spacecraft collecting regolith samples at asteroid Bennu. Credits: NASA/Lockheed Martin
Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample return spacecraft collecting regolith samples at asteroid Bennu. Credits: NASA/Lockheed Martin

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and OSIRIS-REx spacecraft were rolled out some 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) – where the rocket is assembled- to launch pad 41 starting at about 9 a.m. yesterday morning September 7, 2018.

Watch this OSIRIS-Rex trailer from NASA Goddard illustrating the probes Earth departure launch phase:

NASAs OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is on a mission to explore asteroid Bennu and return a sample to Earth. The OSIRIS-REx launch window opens on September 8, 2016, when the spacecraft begins its two-year journey to Bennu aboard an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida. After arriving at Bennu in 2018, OSIRIS-REx will spend over a year exploring the asteroid before approaching its surface to grab a sample. This pristine material, formed at the dawn of the solar system, will be returned to Earth in 2023, providing clues to Bennus origins and our own. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/David Ladd

OSIRIS-REx will gather rocks and soil and bring at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample back to Earth in 2023. It has the capacity to scoop up to about 2 kg or more.

The mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began. It will also improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth by measuring the Yarkovsky effect.
Bennu is an unchanged remnant from the collapse of the solar nebula and birth of our solar system some 4.5 billion years ago.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.  Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It was chosen as the target because it is little altered over time and thus ‘pristine’ in nature.

Bennu is a near-Earth asteroid and was selected for the sample return mission because it could hold clues to the origin of the solar system and host organic molecules that may have seeded life on Earth.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is housed inside the payload fairing atop the  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is housed inside the payload fairing atop the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The 189 foot tall ULA Atlas V rocket is launching in the rare 411 configuration for only the 3rd time on this mission – which is the 65th for the Atlas V.

The Atlas 411 vehicle includes a 4-meter diameter payload fairing and one solid rocket booster that augments the first stage. The Atlas booster for this mission is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10C-1 engine.

The RD-180 burns RP-1 (Rocket Propellant-1 or highly purified kerosene) and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of thrust at sea level.

The strap on solids deliver approximately 500,000 pounds of thrust.

The solids will be jettisoned about 2 minutes after liftoff.

OSIRIS-REx will return the largest sample from space since the American and Soviet Union’s moon landing missions of the 1970s.

OSIRIS-REx is the third mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program, following New Horizons to Pluto and Juno to Jupiter, which also launched on Atlas V rockets.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is responsible for overall mission management.

OSIRIS-REx complements NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – including the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which is a robotic spacecraft mission aimed at capturing a surface boulder from a different near-Earth asteroid and moving it into a stable lunar orbit for eventual up close sample collection by astronauts launched in NASA’s new Orion spacecraft. Orion will launch atop NASA’s new SLS heavy lift booster concurrently under development.

Watch for Ken’s continuing OSIRIS-REx mission and launch reporting from on site at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Ait Force Station, FL.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer
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Learn more about OSIRIS-REx, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX missions, Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Sep 8-9: “OSIRIS-REx lainch, SpaceX missions/launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is rolled out to pad 40 for launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft is rolled out to pad 40 for launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft atop a ULA Atlas V rocket prior to planned launch on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Julian Leek
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft atop a ULA Atlas V rocket prior to planned launch on Sept. 8, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Julian Leek

Spectacular Video Captures Catastrophic SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Explosion During Prelaunch Test

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. See the full video below. Credit: USLaunchReport

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that suffered a catastrophic explosion this morning, Thursday, Sept. 1, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was captured in stunning detail in a spectacular video recorded by my space journalist colleague at USLaunchReport.

As seen in the still image above and the full video below, the rocket failure originated somewhere in the upper stage during fueling test operations at the launch pad, less than two days prior to its planned launch on Sept. 3. The rocket was swiftly consumed in a massive fireball and thunderous blasts accompanied by a vast plume of smoke rising from the wreckage visible for many miles.

Both the SpaceX rocket and the $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli commercial communications satellite payload were completely destroyed in the incident. Thankfully there were no injuries to anyone, because the pad is cleared during these types of operations.

This also marks the second time a Falcon 9 has exploded and will call into question the rocket’s reliability. The first failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion about two and a half minutes after liftoff, during a cargo resupply launch for NASA to the International Space Station on June 28, 2015 – and witnessed by this author.

It took place during this morning’s prelaunch preparations for a static hot fire test of the nine Merlin 1 D engines powering the Falcon 9 first stage when engineers were loading the liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene propellants for the test, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

“Loss of Falcon vehicle today during propellant fill operation,” tweeted SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk this afternoon a few hours after the launch pad explosion.

“Originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.”

The Falcon 9 explosion occurred at approximately 9:07 a.m. EDT this morning at the SpaceX launch facilities at Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, according to statements from SpaceX and the USAF 45th Space Wing Public Affairs office.

All SpaceX launches will be placed on hold until a thorough investigation is conducted, the root cause is determined, and effective fixes and remedies are identified and instituted.

The planned engine test was being conducted as part of routine preparations for the scheduled liftoff of the Falcon 9 on Saturday, September 3, with an Israeli telecommunications satellite that would have also been used by Facebook.

During the static fire test, which is a full launch dress rehearsal, the rocket is loaded with propellants and is held down at pad 40 while the engines are typically fired for a few seconds.

Here is the full video from my space journalist friend and colleague Mike Wagner of USLaunchReport:

Video Caption: SpaceX – Static Fire Anomaly – AMOS-6 – 09-01-2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 had been slated for an overnight blastoff on Saturday, September 3 at 3 a.m. from pad 40 with the 6 ton AMOS-6 telecommunications satellite valued at some $200 million.

In the video you can clearly see the intensely bright explosion flash near the top of the upper stage that quickly envelopes the entire rocket in a fireball, followed later by multiple loud bangs from the disaster echoing across and beyond the pad.

Seconds later the nose cone and payload break away violently, falling away and crashing into the ground and generating a new round of loud explosions and fires and a vast plume of smoke rising up.

At the end the rocket is quite visibly no longer standing. Only the strongback erector is still standing at pad 40. And both the strongback and the pad structure seems to have suffered significant damage.

This would have been the 9th Falcon 9 launch of 2016.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

SpaceX media relations issued this updated statement:

“At approximately 9:07 am ET, during a standard pre-launch static fire test for the AMOS-6 mission, there was an anomaly at SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 40 resulting in loss of the vehicle.”

“The anomaly originated around the upper stage oxygen tank and occurred during propellant loading of the vehicle. Per standard operating procedure, all personnel were clear of the pad and there were no injuries.”

“We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause. Additional updates will be provided as they become available.”

Listen to my BBC Radio 5 Live interview conducted late this afternoon:

Today’s explosion and the total loss of vehicle and payload will certainly have far reaching consequences for not just SpaceX and the commercial satellite provider and end users, but also NASA, the International Space Station, the US military, and every other customer under a launch contact with the fast growing aerospace firm.

The ISS is impacted because SpaceX is one of two NASA contracted firms launching cargo resupply missions to the ISS – along with Orbital ATK.

Continued operations of the ISS depends on a reliable and robust lifeline of periodic supply trains from SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

In fact the most recent SpaceX Drago cargo freighter launched on the CRS-9 mission to the ISS on July 18 as I witnessed and reported here. And just successfully returned to Earth with 3000 pounds of NASA science cargo and research samples last week on Aug. 26.

The SpaceX Dragon launches to the ISS will be put on hold as the investigation moves forward.

Furthermore SpaceX is manufacturing a Crew Dragon designed to launch astronauts to the ISS atop this same Falcon 9 rocket. So that will also have to be evaluated.

SpaceX is also trying to recover and recycle the Falcon 9 first stage.

To date SpaceX has recovered 6 first stage Falcon 9 boosters by land and by sea.

SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing  rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 launches and lands over Port Canaveral in this streak shot showing rockets midnight liftoff from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016 carrying Dragon CRS-9 craft to the International Space Station (ISS) with almost 5,000 pounds of cargo and docking port. View from atop Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Indeed as I reported just 2 days ago, SpaceX announced a contract with SES to fly the SES-10 communications satellite on a recycled Falcon 9, before the end of the year and perhaps as soon as October.

But this explosion will set back that effort and force a halt to all SpaceX launches until the root cause of the disaster is determined.

Here’s one of my photos showing the prior SpaceX rocket failure in June 2015 during the CRS-7 cargo delivery mission to the ISS:

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon resupply spaceship explode about 2 minutes after liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Here’s the prior SpaceX Falcon 9 on pad 40 before the successful liftoff with the JCSAT-16 Japanese telecom satellite on Aug. 14, 2016:

SpaceX Falcon 9 set to deliver JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX Falcon 9 set to deliver JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The AMOS-6 communications satellite was built by Israel Aerospace Industries for Space Communication Ltd. It was planned to provide communication services including direct satellite home internet for Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Emergency Management quickly provided initial on-scene response and set up roadblocks, said the Air Force in a statement.

“Days like today are difficult for many reasons,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander.

“There was the potential for things to be a lot worse; however, due to our processes and procedures no one was injured as a result of this incident. I am proud of our team and how we managed today’s response and our goal moving forward will be to assist and provide support wherever needed. Space is inherently dangerous and because of that, the Air Force is always ready.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is destroyed during explosion at the pad. Only the strongback remains. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016 of Amos-6 comsat. Credit: NASA
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is destroyed during explosion at the pad on Sept. 1, 2016. Only the strongback remains. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016 of Amos-6 comsat. Credit: NASA
This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background - as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
This recovered 156-foot-tall (47-meter) SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage has arrived back into Port Canaveral, FL after successfully launching JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. NASA’s VAB in the background – as seen from Exploration Tower on Aug. 19. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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SpaceX Falcon 9 Blows Up During Launch Pad Test with Israeli Comsat

A SpaceX Falcon 9 apparently explodes at the base of the rocket.   A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sep.t 3, 2016. Credit: CCAFS
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is destroyed during explosion at the pad on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016 of Amos-6 comsat. Credit: CCAFS

BREAKING NEWS- A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its Israeli commercial satellite payload were completely destroyed this morning, Thursday, September 1, during launch preparations ahead of the scheduled liftoff on Saturday, September 3.

The explosion occurred at approximately 9:07 a.m. this morning at the SpaceX launch facilities at Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, according to a statement from the USAF 45th Space Wing Public Affairs office.

Watch for additional details here and my interview on the BBC as this story is being frequently updated:

There were no injuries reported at this time.

SpaceX was preparing to conduct a routine static fire test of the first stage Merlin 1 D engine when the explosion took place this morning.

SpaceX media relations issued this statement:

“SpaceX can confirm that in preparation for today’s static fire, there was an anomaly on the pad resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its payload. Per standard procedure, the pad was clear and there were no injuries.”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 had been slated for an overnight blastoff on Saturday, September 3 at 3 a.m. from pad 40 with the AMOS-6 telecommunications satellite valued at some $200 million.

SpaceX sells Falcon 9 rockets at a list price of some $60 million.

This would have been the 9th Falcon 9 launch of 2016.

SpaceX Falon 9 rocket explosion
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion. Credit: WTTV/Julian Leek

This explosion and the total loss of vehicle and payload will have far reaching consequences for not just SpaceX and the commercial satellite provider, but also NASA, the US military, and every other customer under a launch contact with the aerospace firm.

Here’s my interview with the BBC TV news a short while ago. Note that the cause is under investigation:

SpaceX is also trying to recover and recycle the Falcon 9 first stage.

Indeed as I reported just 2 days ago, SpaceX announce a contract with SES to fly the SES-10 communications satellite on a recycled Falcon 9.

This explosion will set back that effort and force a halt to all SpaceX launches until the root cause is determined.

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Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 prior to launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Mar. 4, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Upgraded SpaceX Falcon 9 prior to launch of SES-9 communications satellite on Mar. 4, 2016 from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com