Boy oh boy it has been an exciting few weeks for space. NASA launched Osiris REX which is going to fly out to asteroid Bennu take a little bite out of the surface, and send it back to earth. And then there was the SpaceX rocket that exploded, which was awesome! Well…it wasn’t awesome for SpaceX, but watch that explosion and tell me it’s not fucking spectacular.
Fuuuuuuuuck, I could literally watch that all day. Anyways so what happened. Alright, so it was a standard Falcon 9 Rocket, unused (I love that you have to specify that now). It was carrying AMOS-6 an Israeli communications satellite which Facebook had partially rented out to provide their internet.org service to parts of Africa, because you know Facebook is just so wonderful like that. Sorry, I got beef with Internet.org, but that’s really inconsequential at this point. Anyways, a few days out from launch they decided to do a static fire test. What that means is they load up the rocket, bolt it to the ground and then fire the main engines to make sure everything is running correctly before the big day…and then this happened. Oh and I should probably mention that the pad was empty at the time (precisely for this reason) so no one got hurt . If you want a good break down of the actual explosion I suggest you check out this video by Scott Manley It’s really good, and he goes frame by frame through all the awesome combustion dynamics, it’s pretty rad.
Man, I just can’t get over how cool that explosion looks. So first thing’s first, what caused it? Fuck if I know. SpaceX can’t even figure it out and they have literally terabytes of data of everything leading up to the explosion. There are a few clues that can help determine what went wrong. For one the explosion appears to originate at the fueling port on the upper stage. Now, that’s a fairly likely point of failure which means there’s about a billion things that could have caused the failure. An electrical spark seems the most obvious, but it could have also been caused by some of the parts colliding, keep in mind the fuels they use are highly combustable (I mean…that’s why they use them). Again, I’m not SpaceX, I don’t know the exact configuration of the rocket, I’m just speculating at this point. Like Scott Manley said, there doesn’t seem to be any fuel leak. It also doesn’t look like the explosion started within the fuel tank, if it did I would expect to see some the upper stage buckling just prior to the explosion.
One theory I don’t think has gotten enough consideration: Lasers. Hear me out. That launch site is pretty exposed right? I mean that footage you saw there came from a couple miles away. What if someone with a very high powered laser pointed it at the rocket as it was fueling thus igniting the fuel and causing the explosion so as to destroy SpaceX’s reputation thereby initiating a chain of events leaving mankind with out future space-based defenses leaving us vulnerable to….ALIEN INVASION!!! That’s right! It was the illuminati! Having made contact with an alien super-species the illuminati agreed to carry out covert plans to sabotage human space endeavors in exchange for immunity in the future alien occupation, and so they contacted they’re number one agent to point a high-powered military prototype combat laser to take down the SpaceX rocket before it could even lift off!
Alright so now that we’ve uncovered the secret alien/illuminati/My-Best-Friend-Sam conspiracy let’s talk about consequences. Well for one their entire fleet is going to be grounded, at least until the end of the year. First they’re going to have to figure out what went wrong, and then they’re going to have to do whatever it takes to ensure that kind of failure doesn’t happen again. Depending on what exactly went wrong that could mean anything form reworking their fueling procedures to redesigning their upper stage rocket. Then they’re going to have to go through some sort of recertification process before anyone’s going to put their payloads on top of Falcon 9’s. That means that the rest of their launch schedule is going to have to be delayed, or they’re going to have to find other rockets launch on. SpaceX does have two more ISS resupply missions this year, but those missions aren’t typically time-critical, the ISS usually has enough backup supplies.
Oh, and then there’s the launch pad. You can imagine an explosion that big is sure to leave a sizable crater. The damage alone is going to take a long time to repair, but they won’t be able to touch anything until the investigation is done. That means Launch Pad 40 probably won’t be operational again until summer 2017 at the earliest. SpaceX does have other launch pads however. They frequently launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and they’re also in the process of rebuilding launch pad 39a to accommodate the new Falcon Heavy. Unfortunately Pad 39a is still under construction, which means fleet-grounding aside, they won’t be able to launch out of florida for some time, which if you know anything about space launches is a bad thing.
Overall though this is a good thing. A failure like this means there was a serious flaw in the design of their launch system. While it would have been better if they had caught this issue before it became…explosive, it’s better to have this kind of failure on a low priority payload than to have this issue emerge during a manned launch. Plus…god damn is that a beautiful explosion.