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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion could impact satellite launch schedule

02 September 2016

The loss of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in a launch pad explosion at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on September 1 could have serious repercussions both on the company itself and on those relying on it to launch their satellites in the coming months. SpaceX has already completed eight launches this year and had planned another nine.

Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral - Image: SpaceX
Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral - Image: SpaceX

There were no injuries and all workers were clear of the launch pad, in accordance with standard operating procedure, SpaceX said. “We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause,” it added.

Buildings several miles away shook from the blast, and multiple explosions continued for several minutes with dark smoke filling the sky. The Air Force said there was no threat to public safety in the surrounding communities.

SpaceX will postpone new launches until the reasons for the failure have been brought to light.

The company was conducting a test firing of the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 when the blast occurred, completely destroying the rocket and its payload, an Israeli communications satellite.

In a statement, SpaceX said the "anomaly" happened during a "standard pre-launch static fire test" ahead of the expected September 3 launch of the Amos-6 commercial communications satellite. SpaceX said the explosion "originated around the upper-stage oxygen tank" and happened while propellant was being loaded into the rocket.

The Amos-6 satellite was built in Israel by SpaceCom and would have been leased to Eutelsat and Facebook, with the latter using its share to improve broadband coverage of Africa.

Satellite communications firm Iridium was set to launch 10 satellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California towards the end of the month, the first of seven launch contracts it has with SpaceX to build the firm’s eventual 66 satellite Iridium Next constellation.

An Iridium spokeswoman said the company was confident that SpaceX would resolve the issues that caused the explosion.

NASA also has contracts with SpaceX to take supplies to the International Space Station.

Industry observers said Iridium and NASA are the two SpaceX customers with the most pressing launch schedules and the most to lose if problems with the Falcon 9 drag on for months.

SpaceX, a California-based company led by billionaire Elon Musk, had been ramping up launches to make up for a backlog created by a rocket failure in June 2015, when a Falcon 9 exploded shortly after launch.

The second stage of the rocket was implicated in the first incident, and if the company concludes the same stage and systems are to blame for the latest one, the implications could be that there are unresolved technical issues that need prolonged investigation.

SpaceX was leasing the SLC 40 pad from the Air Force for its Falcon launches. The company is also adapting a former shuttle pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center next door for future NASA manned flights.

Update - September 6

SpaceCom, which owned the sophisticated Amos-6 satellite lost in the explosion, is set to receive more than $2 million in insurance payments from Israel Aerospace Industries, which built the satellite. It also said that it expects to receive $50 million from SpaceX or be offered a future launch free of charge.

The loss of the Amos-6 payload could endanger the acquisition of SpaceCom by the Chinese conglomerate Beijing Xinwei Technology Group. The deal was dependent on the successful launch of the satellite, The New York Times said.

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