SpaceX crowdsources clues to rocket blast as missions stack up

Bloomberg  September 10, 2016 Last Updated at 21:27 IST

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asked witnesses to share video, photos and audio of a launchpad blaze that destroyed a satellite-bearing rocket last week, a mystery that billionaire founder called the most “difficult and complex failure” in the company’s 14 years.

The ignition source for the fireball wasn’t readily apparent and the spacecraft was idle at the time of the incident, Musk wrote in a tweet Friday. He also asked for any recordings of the event to be e-mailed to the Hawthorne, California-based rocket maker.

The closely held company wants to quickly find the cause of the blast that engulfed its Falcon 9 rocket minutes before a scheduled pre-launch engine test on September 1. As is typical after a mishap, all rocket flights for Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies have been grounded, halting operations just as the company was accelerating to its fastest-ever launch tempo to capitalise on a $10-billion backlog of scheduled missions.

“Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk wrote on his verified Twitter account. “Important to note that this happened during a routine filling operation. Engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source.”

There’s little precedent for the accident or its aftermath, with Musk turning to crowdsourcing in an attempt to gather additional clues. The Space Foundation, a nonprofit advocate of space flight, pointed to a handful of potentially similar accidents over a half century, including a launch pad failure that consumed a Titan D rocket in 1960 and an accident 20 years later at Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome that destroyed an R-7 rocket and killed 48 people.

While no one was injured in the blast, the internet is already buzzing with theories from a failure of the rocket’s liquid oxygen tank to a drone strike.

“The situation opens one’s mind up to wild speculation,” said Hans Weber, an aerospace consultant. “That’s another reason why it’s so important to find out what happened.”

About 20 people from SpaceX, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the US Air Force, as well as other industry experts, are part of a core team that’s evaluating data to determine the cause of the anomaly, according to a person familiar with the investigation. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of flight reliability, is leading the probe on behalf of SpaceX. The FAA has oversight authority.