SpaceX rocket launch news analysis

SpaceX to return to rocket flight for the first time since September explosion

Image credit: Diomedia

SpaceX has announced it plans to resume flying rockets next week following an investigation into why one of them burst into flames on a launch pad four months ago.

The company, which is owned by Tesla founder Elon Musk, said it expects to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on 8 January to put 10 satellites into orbit for Iridium Communications.

SpaceX suspended flights after the same model of rocket went up in a blaze on 1 September as it was being fuelled for a routine pre-launch test in Florida. 

The explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida destroyed the $62m (£51m) rocket and a $200m communications satellite.

Space X has a backlog of more than 70 missions for NASA and commercial customers, worth more than $10bn.

In a statement, the company said that accident investigators concluded that a cannister of helium inside the rocket’s upper-stage oxygen tank had exploded.

In the short term, SpaceX plans to revamp its fuelling procedures so that the super-cold liquid oxygen will not build up between the helium tank’s liner and its outer covering, it added.

SpaceX said accumulation of oxygen in a void or buckle in the liner most likely led to the explosion.

“In the long term, SpaceX will implement design changes to the [helium cannisters] to prevent buckles altogether,” it added.

The company did not say when new helium cannisters would be ready to fly, but that using warmer temperature helium and a slower fuelling operation will prevent them from bursting.

“Iridium is pleased with SpaceX’s announcement on the results of the September 1 anomaly as identified by their accident investigation team, and their plans to target a return to flight,” company spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry said.

SpaceX has not said how much damage the 1 September accident did to its primary Florida launch pad, nor when a new second pad in Florida, located at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, will be put into service.

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