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SpaceX rocket explosion linked to problem with cryogenic helium system

31 October 2016

Following a joint investigation with the Federal Aviation Association (FAA), NASA, and the US Air Force, Elon Musk’s private space company SpaceX says it has discovered the likely reason for the explosion of one of its Falcon 9 rockets on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on September 1. The company has replicated the failure of a helium tank, now believed to be the cause of the explosion.

Falcon 9 on launch pad - Image: SpaceX
Falcon 9 on launch pad - Image: SpaceX

According to SpaceX, the problem lies in one of the three pressure vessels in the upper portion of the rocket, more specifically in the helium system which is used to pressurise the rocket during the flight.

The theory is that the accident was due to a break in the cryogenic helium system in the vehicle’s upper oxygen tank.

The rocket exploded while it was being fuelled on its launch pad as it was being prepared for an engine test, leading to the loss of both the launch vehicle and its payload, the Israeli Amos 6 communication satellite.

 “SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9,” SpaceX said in a statement on October 28. “With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation.”

 “The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the [liquid oxygen] tank,” SpaceX said a statement.

Investigators found the tank to be highly affected by changes in temperature and pressure of the helium as it is loaded into the tank, making it a likely, although not confirmed, cause of the explosion.

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