'Worst anomaly' to date may ground SpaceX's Falcon 9 for a year

A pre-launch explosion that destroyed SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket together with a communications satellite it was due to deliver to orbit may ground the vehicle for up to a year, an industry expert has said. 

According to Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX’s major competitor, such serious incidents require rigorous investigations and ensuing re-design work that may drag on for nine months or even a year. For that period of time, operations are usually suspended to prevent a similar scenario from repeating itself, especially as payload worth tens of millions of pounds is at risk.

"It typically takes nine to 12 months for people to return to flight. That’s what history is,” Bruno told Reuters, adding that the main issue after accidents involving space launches has "always been figuring out what went wrong on the rocket, being confident that you know ... how to fix it and then actually getting that fix in place".

SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk described last week's explosion on Twitter as the most "difficult and complex failure" SpaceX has experienced in 14 years of operations.

He said that engines were not engaged at the time of the explosion, which took place eight minutes before a scheduled firing test, and there was no apparent heat source.

“Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off,” Musk said. “May come from rocket or something else.”

SpaceX has not publicly disclosed the extent of damage to its Cape Canaveral launch pad. Shortly after the explosion, the firm said available data suggest the problem originated around the liquid oxygen tank of the rocket’s upper stage.

Bruno said that despite the competitive nature of ULA’s relationship to SpaceX, the rival’s failure was not a reason to celebrate.

"It's a small community and issues especially around safety – but even mission success – kind of transcend the competitive piece of this," he said.

ULA, which operates Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V rockets, competes with SpaceX for private as well as governmental contracts.

Until earlier this year, the firm had had a monopoly for US military satellite launches, which SpaceX challenged and managed to break.

SpaceX is offering its services cheaper than all of its major competitors.

"It is still a priced-only competition, which I think is unfortunate and not necessarily, in our view, the best way to select this type of complex and risky service," Bruno said.

The operator of the satellite destroyed in the explosion, Israeli firm Spacecom, said it will seek compensation from SpaceX worth £38m. The loss of the satellite, it has been said, puts the company’s future at risk.

The 1 September explosion was not the first for SpaceX. On 28 June last year, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon capsule full of cargo for the International Space Station disintegrated two minutes after lift-off.

ULA’s safety record, on the other hand, is quite impressive. A partial failure of Delta IV in December 2004 left a satellite in incorrect orbit. The firm’s Atlas V rocket registered one partial failure in 2002. This year, the rocket was used to deliver the Cygnus capsule to the International Space Station instead of the failed Orbital Sciences’ Antares. The mission, according to industry experts, was only seconds away from failing after the rocket’s first stage shut down prematurely. The Centaur Upper Stage, however, managed to make up for the glitch by extending its burn.

Atlas V has been used by Nasa yesterday to launch its asteroid explorer OSIRIS-Rex.

SpaceX, which has completed more than 70 successful missions, is cooperating with experts from Nasa, the US Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Air Force to determine the cause of the explosion. The firm said they are examining 3,000 channels of telemetry and video data covering a time period of just 35-55 milliseconds.


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