SpaceX discovers the cause of their rocket’s explosion

A “large breach” in the upper stage helium pressurization system caused a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster to explode earlier this month, destroying both the rocket and its $200 million satellite payload,  the California-based aerospace firm has announced.

According to USA Today and Spaceflight Now, a preliminary internal investigation conducted with the assistance of US Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration, and industry officials has determined that a breach of the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place. The cause of that breach remains unknown at this point, investigators said.

In an update posted to the company’s website, SpaceX said that the even thought the timeline of the September 1 incident was “extremely short – from first signs of an anomaly to loss of data is about 93 milliseconds or less than 1/10th of a second,” the investigative team had reviewed more than 3,000 channels of engineering data along with audio, video and images of the blast.

A review of that data, along with debris that had been recovered an inspected, “suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place,” the company said. “All plausible causes are being tracked… carefully investigated.”

Company could resume spaceflight as early as November

Earlier this month, SpaceX chief Elon Musk said that he would not rule out the possibility that something had struck the rocket, according to USA Today. The Falcon 9 was being fueled for a test-firing of its nine primary engines prior to the scheduled satellite launch, they added.

SpaceX officials have said that “safely and reliably” returning the Falcon 9 booster to regular use was the investigation’s top priority, Spaceflight  Now said. Thus far, the investigation discovered “substantial” damage to some areas of the pad systems, but the Falcon Support Building adjacent to the pad and the liquid oxygen tanks and plumbing were unaffected, the company noted.

“The RP-1 (kerosene) fuel farm was also largely unaffected,” SpaceX said, and the pad’s control systems were also said to be “in relatively good condition.” Most of the firm’s other facilities are located several miles away, they noted, meaning that they were also unaffected.

At this point, no timetable has been set for when repairs at the launch pad will be complete, USA Today noted, so in the meantime, SpaceX plans to use facilities at nearby Kennedy Space Center. They hope to have that launch pad ready for use by the end of November, although it is currently unclear if the company plans to conduct their next launch in Florida or California.

“Our manufacturing and production is continuing in a methodical manner, with teams continuing to build engines, tanks, and other systems as they are exonerated from the investigation,” SpaceX explained. “We will work to resume our manifest as quickly as responsible once the cause of the anomaly has been identified,” they added. “Pending the results of the investigation, we anticipate returning to flight as early as the November timeframe.”


Image credit: SpaceX