SpaceX zeroes in on cause of spectacular rocket explosion

Elon Musk's space company posts preliminary results of its investigation into an "anomaly" that led to the loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and Amos-6 satellite.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
2 min read

It's a little like the most spectacular popping of a helium balloon ever. Well, if that balloon were actually a two-stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket capable of 1.7 million pounds of thrust and the helium inside was next to big tanks of flammable liquid oxygen and kerosene.

Ok, so it's a little more complicated than a simple helium balloon.

SpaceX said Friday it thinks "a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place" as a Falcon 9 rocket was being fueled in advance of a test on September 1. Eight minutes before the scheduled test firing, an "anomaly" occurred. In other words, the rocket exploded in spectacular fashion. The explosion was seen and heard for miles around SpaceX's Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The company posted an update on its website regarding the anomaly -- its first update in three weeks -- and progress of the investigation:

"The Accident Investigation Team (AIT), composed of SpaceX, the FAA, NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and industry experts, are currently scouring through approximately 3,000 channels of engineering data along with video, audio and imagery. The timeline of the event is extremely short - from first signs of an anomaly to loss of data is about 93 milliseconds or less than 1/10th of a second. 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."

SpaceX said the preliminary review points to the helium system, but what exactly caused the breach is not yet known. The cause of this mishap is not connected to the explosion of the SpaceX CRS-7 mission to resupply the International Space Station that exploded shortly after launch in June 2015, the company said.

No one was injured in the September 1 explosion, but the Amos-6 satellite the rocket was set to carry to orbit was lost and some damage was done to the launch pad.

SpaceX's launch schedule is on hold while the investigation continues.

"Pending the results of the investigation, we anticipate returning to flight as early as the November time frame," the update reads.

Perhaps most notable for some readers is the fact that the investigation has yet to yield any evidence that a UFO is to blame for the blast. Well, that's no fun.

Watch this: SpaceX faces new setbacks after Falcon explosion