A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a static fire test at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. Video courtesy USLaunchReport.com.
A week after a Falcon 9 rocket disintegrated in a fireball on its Cape Canaveral launch pad, SpaceX has come to no quick conclusions about what sparked the inferno.
“Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” CEO Elon Musk said Friday in a series of comments on Twitter that were the company’s first updates in a week.
That 14-year history includes an in-flight Falcon 9 failure last year and problems years earlier on the company’s first three launches, of smaller Falcon 1 rockets no longer in service.
SpaceX asked anyone with photos, video or audio of the “anomaly” to share them, saying the information could aid the investigation.
Musk’s input did nothing to contain speculation about what went wrong, which has ranged from a fuel line rupture or strut failure to sabotage and, oddly, a UFO strike.
He said the company has not ruled out the possibility that something hit the 230-foot rocket, as some suggest they see in the video.
The Falcon 9 was being fueled during a Sept. 1 countdown rehearsal preparing for a planned launch two days later of Amos-6, an Israeli communications satellite that Facebook planned to use to extend Internet access in Africa.
The test was supposed to end with nine main engines briefly firing, but the explosion — technically a “fast fire,” according to Musk — occurred about eight minutes before that.
The pad was cleared for the hazardous fueling operation, and no one was injured.
“Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation,” said Musk. “Engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source.”
Of particular interest, he said, was a lighter bang audible a few seconds before the initial fireball.
“May come from rocket or something else,” he said.
On Twitter, a person identifying himself as a saxophone repairman suggested the noise sounded like a metal joint popping under stress. To which Musk replied: “Most likely true, but we can’t yet find it on any vehicle sensors.”
Speculation and even conspiracy theories are not uncommon after rocket failures, including after two fatal space shuttle disasters, noted Ray Lugo, director of the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
“There’s all kinds of speculation going on as to what it is,” said Lugo, a former manager of NASA’s Launch Services Program. “That can be dangerous, because it can distract people from doing what they should be doing.”
He said he was confident SpaceX is engaged in a methodical process to isolate a root cause.
SpaceX early on said it was scouring 3,000 channels of telemetry and video covering a period of milliseconds.
The company investigation is being overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, with NASA and the Air Force providing support.
If nothing else, Musk’s commentary dimmed hopes of a quick rebound.
If the failure was clearly due to flawed ground equipment, it seemed feasible the rocket could be cleared to fly soon from a different pad.
Launch Complex 40, where the explosions occurred, is presumed to have suffered extensive damage.
From a distance, a mangled “strongback” that lifts the Falcon 9 rockets vertical and connects power and fuel lines can still be seen upright. Four lightning protection towers are charred but standing. A processing hangar appears intact.
The scene likely will be preserved for some time to support the investigation and insurance claims.
While that pad may take months to repair, SpaceX says nearby pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center could be ready for use as soon as November. The company also operates a California pad for missions launching to polar orbits.
Last week’s failure might have seemed simpler to diagnose than last year’s, given that the Falcon 9 was stationary and in plain view, rather than flying at high speed out over the ocean.
That’s not necessarily the case, Lugo said.
The event still happened in the blink of an eye. Remotely received sensor data and camera views, which are always limited, are all the only available clues.
“I’m not at all surprised that they’re not quickly coming to an answer,” he said. “The fact that they’re still digging through the data and trying to understand it shows they’re following a process to find the truth, not just a convenient answer.”
SpaceX on Friday asked anyone with audio, photos or videos of the Falcon 9 rocket explosion on Sept. 1 to send them to email@example.com, saying the material could be useful to its failure investigation.