Two rocket failures get autumn off to a bad start

Cape Canaveral explosion destroys ‘Facebook satellite’, while mystery surrounds fate of Chinese mission

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Falcon 9 rocket explodes at Cape Canaveral

The Falcon 9 rocket explodes at Cape Canaveral.
Photograph: US Launch Report

September has not seen a good start for rocket launches, with both US and Chinese failures. At 9.07am EDT on the 1st, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, destroying a $200m Israeli communications satellite called Amos 6.

The accident took place during a practice countdown during which fuel is pumped into the rocket and the engines started to make sure everything is working properly. Clearly they were not.

The explosion started near the top of the rocket, just underneath the payload. The Amos 6 satellite was the largest, heaviest satellite ever made by Israel. It was primarily designed to beam television across Europe and the Middle East.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had also struck a deal with the satellite owners to use it to provide broadband internet to sub-Saharan Africa.

Grabbing fewer headlines is the apparent failure of a Chinese Long March 4C rocket. It was launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi province, northern China, in the early hours of 1 September, but its payload does not appear to have reached orbit.

Although there has been no official word from the Chinese authorities on the status of the mission, the US Air Force has reported that no objects were detected being deployed in orbit from the launch.

The rocket was carrying the Gaofen 10 satellite, an Earth observation spacecraft that could be used for both military and civilian purposes.

It seems likely that the rocket lifted off correctly, but that a failure in the upper stage engine meant the satellite fell back to Earth, mostly burning up in the atmosphere. This is the first Chinese launch failure since 2013.