SpaceX Set for High Stakes Falcon 9 Blastoff Resumption with Iridium Satellite Fleet on Jan. 14 – Watch Live

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for Jan. 14, 2017, Return to Flight launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying ten Iridium NEXT comsats to orbit. Credit: SpaceX

The stakes could almost not be higher for SpaceX as the firm readies their twice failed Falcon 9 rocket for a blastoff resumption on Saturday morning, Jan. 14 carrying the vanguard of the commercial Iridium NEXT satellite fleet to orbit from their California rocket base.

Barely four and a half months after another Falcon 9 and its $200 million Israeli commercial payload were suddenly destroyed during a prelaunch fueling test on the Florida Space Coast on Sept. 1, 2016, SpaceX says all systems are GO for the ‘Return to Flight’ launch of a new Falcon 9 on the Iridium-1 mission from the California coast tomorrow.

Another launch failure would deal a devastating blow to confidence in SpaceX’s hard won reputation – so ‘Failure is Not an Option’ as they say in the space business.

The Sept. 1, 2016 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time. Both occurred inside the second stage and called into question the rockets reliability.

The 229-foot (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket has been rolled out from its processing hangar to the launch pad and raised vertically.

“Beautiful picture of our ride to space tomorrow on the launch pad this morning!” tweeted Matt Desch, Iridium Communications CEO, featuring the lead photo in this story.

A license for permission to proceed with the launch originally last Sunday was only granted by the FAA last Friday, Jan. 6. But poor California weather in the form of stormy rains and high winds forced further delays to Saturday.

Today, Friday the 13th, it’s T-Minus 1 Day to the inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation Iridium NEXT communications satellites is slated for 9:54:39 am PST or 5:54:39 pm UTC from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Iridium 1 mission only has an instantaneous launch opportunity precisely at 9:54:34 a.m. PST or 12:54:34 p.m. EST.

You can watch the launch live via a SpaceX webcast starting about 20 minutes prior to the planned liftoff time:

The launch will be broadcast at : http://www.spacex.com/webcast

Weather forecasters currently predict about a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions at launch time.

Sunday, Jan. 15 is available as a back-up launch opportunity in case of a delay for any reason including technical and weather related issues.

The Iridium NEXT payload has been secured to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at T-2 days to launch. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

“The teams from Iridium, SpaceX and our partners are in the homestretch for the first launch of the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation,” said satellite owner Iridium Communications.

Meanwhile the launch teams have completed the countdown dress rehearsal’ and Launch Readiness Review in anticipation of the morning liftoff.

“Final preparations are being made for tomorrow’s inaugural launch, and with that comes a number of high-stakes verifications, involving all parties. Traditionally referred to as the ‘countdown dress rehearsal’ and ‘Launch Readiness Review’ (LRR), these milestones represent the final hurdles to clearing the path for the January 14th launch.”

“The countdown dress rehearsal and LRR include several prelaunch inspections and quality control measures. These include final clearances for the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, Iridium NEXT payload, SpaceX and Iridium® ground infrastructure and associated team member responsibilities.”

Iridium says that every precaution has been taken to ensure a successful launch.

“There are so many variables that need to be considered when finalizing launch preparations, and a slight deviation or unexpected behavior by any of them can jeopardize the launch integrity,” said Iridium COO Scott Smith, in a statement.

“We’ve perfected the necessary procedures, taken every precaution we can imagine, and tomorrow, after what has felt like centuries, we’ll take the first step on a long-awaited journey to revolutionize satellite communications. The success of today’s events has brought us to an apex moment.”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Iridium 1 is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation which will eventually consist of 81 advanced satellites.

At least 70 will be launched by SpaceX.

The inaugural launch of the advanced Iridium NEXT satellites will start the process of replacing an aging Iridium fleet in orbit for nearly two decades.

Mission patch for Iridium-1 mission showing launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT voice and data relay satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, for Iridium Communications, and planned landing of the first stage on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

After the Sept .1 calamity SpaceX conducted a four month long investigation seeking to determine the root cause.

And it was just last Friday, Jan. 6, that the FAA finally granted SpaceX a license to launch the ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission – as I confirmed with the FAA.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose.”

The SpaceX investigation report into the total loss of the Falcon 9 rocket and AMOS-6 payload has not been released at this time. The FAA has oversight responsibility to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation and ensure the protection of public safety.

Incredible sight of pleasure craft zooming past SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Thaicom-8 launch on May 27, 2016 as it arrives at the mouth of Port Canaveral, FL, atop droneship platform on June 2, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

In addition to the launch, SpaceX plans to continue its secondary objective of recovering the Falcon 9 first stage via a propulsive soft landing – as done several times previously and witnessed by this author.

The Iridium-1 mission patch featured herein highlights both the launch and landing objectives.

The goal is to eventually recycle and reuse the first stage – and thereby dramatically slash launch costs per Musk’s vision.

This Falcon 9 has been outfitted with four landing legs and grid fins for a controlled landing on a tiny barge prepositioned in the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the west coast of California.

Watch this space for continuing updates on SpaceX.

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

Ken Kremer

FAA Accepts Accident Report, Grants SpaceX License for Falcon 9 ‘Return to Flight’

SpaceX Falcon 9 poised for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, in this file photo ahead of Jason-3 launch for NASA on Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today “accepted the investigation report” regarding the results of SpaceX’s investigation into the cause of the company’s catastrophic Sept. 1, 2016 launch pad explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket in Florida, and simultaneously “granted a license” for the ‘Return to Flight’ blastoff of the private rocket from California as soon as next week – the FAA confirmed today to Universe Today, Friday, Jan. 6.

“The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price confirmed to Universe Today.

All SpaceX launches were immediately grounded when their Falcon 9 booster and its $200 million AMOS-6 Israeli communications satellite payload were suddenly destroyed without warning during a routine preflight fueling test on Sept. 1, 2016, at pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

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

With today’s definitive action from the FAA the path is now clear for Hawthorne, Ca based SpaceX to resume launches of the Falcon 9 rocket as soon as Monday, Jan. 9. It will carry a fleet of ten Iridium NEXT mobile voice and data relay satellites to orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Ca, for Iridium Communications.

“SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose,” Price added.

The SpaceX investigation report has not been released at this time.

Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with the payload of 10 identical next generation IridiumNEXT communications satellites is slated for 10:22 am PST (1:22 pm EST), Jan. 9, 2017 from Space Launch Complex 4E on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Furthermore all technical systems would appear to be ‘GO’ for the commercial rocket and commercial payload, following the official announcement by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that the Falcon 9 rocket successfully passed its normally routine prelaunch static fire test of the first stage engines, on Thursday, Jan. 5.

“Hold-down firing of @SpaceX Falcon 9 at Vandenberg Air Force completed,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted Jan. 5.

“All systems are go for launch next week.”

“Payload/rocket mating underway,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch elaborated and confirmed via twitter today.

The static fire test involves briefly firing the first stage Merlin 1D engines for several seconds while the rocket remains anchored to the launch pad. The test is run to confirm that all the engines and rocket systems are technically ready for launch.

In contrast to AMOS-6, the Iridium NEXT payload was not installed atop the rocket this time during Thursday’s test to keep them safely and prudently stored out of harms way – just in case another unexpected mishap were to occur.

Members of the Iridium Communications team were on hand to observe Thursday’s static fire test first hand.

“With great anticipation, team members observed the static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will deliver the first ten Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit. Iridium is excited to share that the test is complete, and that SpaceX is reporting that the rocket should be ready for the first launch of the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation next week,” said Iridium officials.

“The target launch date is now Monday, January 9th at 10:22 am PST, weather permitting.”

And since the launch window is instantaneous, there is no margin for error or delay from either a technical or weather standpoint.

Currently, next weeks weather outlook is not promising with a forecast of rain and clouds on Monday morning and beyond. But only time will tell.

“With completion of the static fire test, our first launch has just gotten that much closer,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium, in a statement.

“The Iridium team has been anxiously awaiting launch day, and we’re now all the more excited to send those first ten Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.”

“Looks like we’re good to go for Monday!” Desch tweeted today.

“Payload/rocket mating underway; we’ll just have to see about the weather. Anti-rain dances, anyone?”

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Also known as Iridium 1, this is the first of seven planned Falcon 9 launches to establish the Iridium NEXT constellation – eventually consisting of 81 advanced satellites.

IridiumNEXT satellites being fueled, pressurized & stacked on dispenser tiers at Vandenberg AFB for Falcon 9 launch. Credit: Iridium

Indeed the FAA license approved today covers all seven launches.

“Space Explorations Technologies is authorized to conduct seven launches of Falcon 9 version 1.2 vehicles from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base with each flight transporting ten Iridium NEXT payloads to low Earth orbit.

The license also allows SpaceX to land the first stage on a droneship at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

After the Sept. 1 accident at pad 40, SpaceX initiated a joint investigation to determine the root cause with the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts who have been “working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes.”

On Jan. 2, SpaceX issued a statement ascribing the Sept. 1 anomaly as being traced to a failure wherein one of three high pressure gaseous helium storage tanks located inside the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank of the Falcon 9 rocket suddenly burst. Helium is used to pressurize the propellant tanks. They provided some but not many technical details.

The failure apparently originated at a point where the helium tank “buckles” and accumulates oxygen – “leading to ignition” of the highly flammable liquid oxygen propellant in the second stage when it came into contact with carbon fibers covering the helium tank.

The helium tanks – also known as composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) – are used in both stages of the Falcon 9 to store cold helium which is used to maintain tank pressure.

SpaceX says investigators identified “an accumulation of super chilled liquid oxygen LOX or SOX in buckles under the overwrap” as “credible causes for the COPV failure.”

Apparently the super chilled LOX or SOX can pool in the buckles and react with carbon fibers in the overwrap – which act as an ignition source. “Friction ignition” between the carbon fibers and super chilled oxygen led to the calamitous explosion.

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and both occurred inside the second stage.

Up close look at a SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage and payload fairing from the JCSAT-16 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Both Falcon 9 rocket failures took place inside the second stage. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

If the Iridium liftoff is successful, SpaceX hopes to resume launches on the Florida Space Coast soon thereafter involving both commercial and NASA payloads using pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX could launch an EchoStar communications satellite later in January and a cargo resupply mission for NASA to the ISS in February from KSC.

Blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 on Dragon CRS-9 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:45 a.m. EDT on July 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for continuing updates as SpaceX rolls the rocket out from the processing hangar and we watch the foggy weather forecast with great anticipation !

SpaceX rocket processing hangar at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, fogged by common fog. Credit Julian Leek

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of commercial and human rated Falcon 9 rockets as well as the Falcon Heavy, as seen here during Dec 2016 with construction of a dedicated new transporter/erector. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX Falcon 9 erected at Vandenberg AFB launch pad in California in advance of Jason-3 launch for NASA on Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Postpones Falcon 9 Rocket Launch Resumption to January 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch - with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
SpaceX Falcon 9 Stage 1 arriving in California for Iridium NEXT launch – with a Rainbow! Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

SpaceX is postponing the resumption of launches for their Falcon 9 rocket into early January 2017 as they continue to deal with the fallout from the catastrophic launch pad explosion in Florida that destroyed a Falcon 9 during preflight test operations three months ago.

The new space aerospace company led by billionaire CEO Elon Musk had planned to restart launches as early as next week on Dec 16, for the boosters ‘Return to Flight’ Falcon 9 mission from California with a payload comprising Iridium Corporation’s next-generation communications satellites.

The Iridium mission is the first of seven planned launches.

“Iridium is replacing its existing constellation by sending 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket over 7 different launches,” noted Iridium in a statement.

However, the launch date was pending until approval by the FAA – which will not yet be forthcoming in time to meet the Dec. 16 target date.

The FAA can’t approve a launch until they have a report to review from SpaceX. And that final accident investigation report has not yet been written by SpaceX or submitted to the FAA.

In a new update, SpaceX announced that they “are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly” and need to “complete extended testing” – thus inevitably delaying the hoped for blastoff into early January 2017.

One should not be surprised if there are further delays into the ‘Return to Flight’ since the determination of root cause, testing fixes and finally implementing effective corrective action will take time. This is rocket science and it’s not easy.

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

SpaceX is still investigating why the rocket unexpectedly erupted into a humongous fireball at pad 40 on Sept. 1, that completely consumed the rocket and its $200 million Amos-6 Israeli commercial payload during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The explosive anomaly resulted from a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank and subsequent ignition of the highly flammable oxygen propellant.

“We are finalizing the investigation into our September 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight, now in early January with the launch of Iridium-1,” SpaceX announced in a statement.

Iridium Communications had recently announced that the first launch of a slew of its next-generation global satellite constellation, dubbed Iridium NEXT, would launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 16, 2016 at 12:36 p.m. PST from SpaceX’s west coast launch pad on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

But since only 3 months had elapsed since the accident – the second in 15 months – more time was clearly needed to be certain the rocket was truly flight worthy.

“This allows for additional time to close-out vehicle preparations and complete extended testing to help ensure the highest possible level of mission assurance prior to launch,” SpaceX elaborated.

Iridium also issued a statement supporting the launch delay and expressing continued confidence in SpaceX.

“Iridium supports SpaceX’s announcement today to extend the first Iridium NEXT launch date into early January, in order to help ensure a successful mission. We remain as confident as ever in their ability to safely deliver our satellites into low Earth orbit.”

Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium
Iridium NEXT satellites being processed for launch by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX/Iridium

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Aims for Mid-December Falcon 9 Launch Resumption: Musk

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

Hoping to recover quickly after suffering a calamitous launch pad explosion of their Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral some two months ago, SpaceX is aiming to resume launches of the booster in mid-December, said company founder and CEO Elon Musk in a recent televised interview on Nov. 4.

Musk further indicated in the Nov. 4 interview with CNBC that they have discovered the problem that suddenly triggered the catastrophic Falcon 9 launch pad explosion that suddenly destroyed the rocket and $200 million Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload during a routine fueling and planned static fire engine test on Sept. 1.

“I think we’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem,” Musk said. “It was a really surprising problem. It’s never been encountered before in the history of rocketry.”

Musk said the issue related to some type of interaction between the liquid helium bottles , carbon composites and solidification of the liquid oxygen propellant in the SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage.

“It basically involves a combination of liquid helium, advanced carbon fiber composites, and solid oxygen, Musk elaborated.

“Oxygen so cold that it enters the solid phase.”

“Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk previously tweeted on Sept. 9.

“It’s never happened before in history. So that’s why it took us awhile to sort it out,” Musk told CNBC on Nov. 4.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The explosion took place without warning as liquid oxygen and RP-1 propellants were being loaded into the second stage of the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 during a routine fueling test and engine firing test 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.

But the rocket blew up during the fueling operations and the SpaceX launch team never even got to the point of igniting the first stage engines for the static fire test.

Launch of the AMOS-6 comsat from pad 40 had been scheduled to take place two days later.

In company updates posted to the SpaceX website on Sept. 23 and Oct 28, the company said the anomaly appears to be with a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank – but that the root cause had not yet been determined.

“The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank.”

“Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions.”

The helium loading is “mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.”

“This was the toughest puzzle to solve that we’ve ever had to solve,”Musk explained to CNBC.

After the Sept. 1 accident, SpaceX initiated a joint investigation to determine the root cause with the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts who have been “working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes.”

“We have been working closely with NASA, and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and our commercial customers to understand it,” says Musk.

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

Musk was not asked and did not say from which launch pad the Falcon 9 would launch or what the payload would be.

“It looks like we’re going to be back to launching around mid-December,” he replied.

SpaceX maintains launch pads on both the US East and West coasts.

“Pending the results of the investigation, we continue to work towards returning to flight before the end of the year. Our launch sites at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, remain on track to be operational in this timeframe,” SpaceX said on Oct 28.

At KSC launches will initially take place from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA.

Pad 40 is out of action until extensive repairs and testing are completed.

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 Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and will call into question the rockets overall reliability.

The first Falcon 9 failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion in the second stage 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.

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

SpaceX must determine the root cause before Falcon 9 launches are allowed to resume. Effective fixes must be identified and effective remedies must be verified and implemented.

Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX
Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

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

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Makes Progress Replicating Failure that Caused Falcon 9 Pad Explosion

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 is making significant progress in replicating the failure in the helium pressurization system that led to the catastrophic launch pad explosion of the firms Falcon 9 rocket during a routine fueling test at their Florida Space Coast launch complex on September 1.

The problem at the heart of the anomaly appears to be in the helium loading system. However the root cause of the explosion still remains elusive at this time.

“The Accident Investigation Team continues to make progress in examining the anomaly on September 1 that led to the loss of a Falcon 9 and its payload at Launch Complex 40 (LC-40), Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida,” SpaceX announced in an Oct. 28 update.

The company had previously said in a statement issued on Sept. 23 that investigators had determined that a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank likely triggered the catastrophic Falcon 9 launch pad explosion that suddenly destroyed the rocket and Israeli Amos-6 commercial payload during the routine fueling test almost two months ago.

“The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank,” SpaceX explained in the new statement issued on Oct. 28.

“Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions.”

The helium loading is “mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.”

And SpaceX CEO and Founder Elon Musk had previously cited the explosion as “most difficult and complex failure” in the firms history.

“Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk tweeted on Friday, Sept. 9.

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 helium loading procedures may well need to be modified, as an outcome of the accident investigation, to enable safe loading conditions.

SpaceX is conducting a joint investigation of the Sept. 1 anomaly with the FAA, NASA, the US Air Force and industry experts who have been “working methodically through an extensive fault tree to investigate all plausible causes.”

The explosion also caused extensive damage to launch pad 40 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 photos of the pad taken a week after the explosion during the OSIRIS-REx launch campaign.

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

Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX
Overview schematic of SpaceX Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

The company is conducting an extensive series of ground tests at the firms Texas test site to elucidate as much information as possible as a critical aid to investigators.

“We have conducted tests at our facility in McGregor, Texas, attempting to replicate as closely as possible the conditions that may have led to the mishap.”

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 loaded into the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9. Launch of the AMOS-6 comsat was scheduled two days later.

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 on Sept. 1. There were no injuries since the pad had been cleared.

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

SpaceX continues to work on root cause and helium loading procedures.

“SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9.”

The company also still hopes to resume Falcon 9 launches before the end of 2016.

“Pending the results of the investigation, we continue to work towards returning to flight before the end of the year. Our launch sites at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, remain on track to be operational in this timeframe.”

At KSC launches will initially take place from pad 39A, the former shuttle pad that SpaceX has leased from NASA.

Pad 40 is out of action until extensive repairs and testing are completed.

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

The Sept. 1 calamity was the second Falcon 9 failure within 15 months time and will call into question the rockets overall reliability.

The first Falcon 9 failure involved a catastrophic mid air explosion in the second stage 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.

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

SpaceX must determine the root cause before Falcon 9 launches are allowed to resume. Effective fixes must be identified and effective remedies must be verified and implemented.

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

Was SpaceX’s Lost Falcon 9 The Victim Of Sabotage?

On Sept. 1st, 2016, aerospace giant SpaceX suffered a terrible setback when one of their Falcon 9 rockets inexplicably exploded during a fueling test. An investigation into the causes of the accident – which Musk described as being the “most difficult and complex failure” in the company’s history – was immediately mounted.

And while the focus of the investigation has been on potential mechanical failures – such as a possible breach In 2nd stage helium system – another line in inquiry also came to light recently. In this case, the focus was on the ongoing feud between SpaceX and its greatest competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and whether or not that could have played a role.

Speculation about this possible connection began after three unnamed industry officials who were familiar with the accident shared details of an incident that happened a few weeks after the explosion. According to The Washington Post, these officials claimed that SpaceX had come across something suspicious during the course of their investigation.

On Sept. 1st, one of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket's exploded during a static firing test. The company is now facing a potential legal battle over the damage caused. Credit: SpaceX
On Sept. 1st, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket’s exploded during a static firing test. The company is now facing a potential legal battle over the damage caused. Credit: SpaceX

After pouring over images and video from the explosion, SpaceX investigators noticed an odd shadow and then a white spot on the roof of building located close to their launch complex. The building is currently being leased by ULA to refurbish their Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) rocket motors – a key component in the company’s new Vulcan rocket.

Located about one and half kilometers (1 mile) from SpaceX’s launch facilities, and has a clear line of sight on the launch pad. SpaceX dispatched an representative to check it out, who arrived at the building and requested access to the roof. A ULA representative denied them access and called Air Force investigators, who then inspected the roof themselves and determined that nothing of a suspicions nature was there.

While the incident proved to be inconclusive, it is the fact that it was not previously reported that is raising some eyebrows. And it is just another mysterious detail to come from an accident that remains largely unexplained. However, in all likelihood the incident was avoided to prevent embarrassment to either company, and to avoid fueling speculations about possible sabotage (which seems highly unlikely at this point).

In the meantime, SpaceX is still investigating the explosion with the help of NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the USAF’s 45th Space Wing. Musk commented on the ongoing investigation while attending the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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

In the midst of sharing the latest details of his vision to colonize Mars, Musk was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that the investigation is his company’s “absolute top priority.” As for the cause, he went on to say that they have “eliminated all of the obvious possibilities for what occurred there. So what remains are the less probable answers.”

Whether or not sabotage is a realistic possibility, this incident does serve to highlight the rivalry between SpaceX and ULA. Prior to 2014, ULA was the sole provider of launch services for the US Air Force, until a lawsuit from SpaceX compelled them to open the field to competition. Since then, both companies have been fighting – sometimes bitterly – to secure national security contracts.

It has also brought the issue of government oversight and accountability to the fore. On Sept. 29th, members of Congress Mike Coffman (R-Co) and Robert Aderholt (R-Al) sent a congressional letter to the heads of NASA, the US Air Force and the FAA expressing concerns about SpaceX’s recent accidents and the need for “assured access to space”.

In the letter, Coffman and Aderholt indicated that authority for investigating this and other accidents involving commercial space companies should be entrusted to the federal government:

“The investigative responses to both SpaceX failures raise serious concerns about the authority provided to commercial providers and the protection of national space assets. In both Falcon 9 explosions, NASA and the FAA granted primary responsibility for conducting the mishap investigation to SpaceX. Although subject to FAA oversight, it can be asserted the investigation lacked the openness taxpayers would expect before a return-to-flight.”

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

In other words, several Republican members of Congress hope to make SpaceX’s return to flight contingent on more stringent federal oversight. This may prove to be a source of inconvenience for SpaceX, which has stated that they intend to return to regular flights with their Falcon 9 rockets by November 1st.

Then again, increased federal oversight may also be beneficial in the long run. As is stated in the letter, both accidents involving SpaceX in the past few months occurred after the USAF signed off on the rockets involved:

“Both accidents occurred after the Air Force certified the Falcon 9 launch vehicle for U.S. national security launches, less than fifteen months ago. The certification, designed to subject the Falcon 9’s design and manufacturing process to a review of their technical and manufacturing rigor, appears to have fallen short of ensuring reliable assured US access to space for our most important payloads.”

Clearly, something is wrong if technical failures are not being caught in advance. But then again, space exploration is a hard business, and even the most routine checks can’t account for everything. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing that the Space Race taught us, it is that fierce competition can lead to mistakes, which can in turn cost lives.

As such, demanding that the federal authorities be on hand to ensure that safety standards are met, and that all competitors are being subjected to the same regulatory framework (without preference), might not be a bad idea.

Further Reading: The Washington Post

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