Helium Tank Breach Likely Triggered Falcon 9 Rocket Explosion: SpaceX


SpaceX's loss of its Falcon 9 rocket at the beginning of September may have been caused by a breach in the upper-stage helium system of the vehicle, investigations revealed Friday.

Three weeks ago, one of the aerospace company's Falcon 9 rockets exploded on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral just as it was being geared up for a static fire test. No one was seriously injured, but the blast could be heard 48 kilometers (30 miles) away from the company's launch pad.

The static fire test was designed to determine if the rocket was ready for the upcoming launch of the Amos-6 communications satellite. Both the rocket and the satellite were destroyed as a bright fireball emerged around the upper stage of the vehicle.

Initial review of the debris and data suggests that a huge breach in the second stage liquid oxygen tank's cryogenic helium system may have taken place before the static fire test, according to SpaceX.

However, the company has yet to determine what triggered the helium tank breach in the first place. The Accident Investigation Team is still analyzing 3,000 channels of data, examining audio and video recordings of the Sept. 1 incident, and reviewing the accident timeline, which all boils down to 93 milliseconds.

"All plausible causes are being tracked in an extensive fault tree and carefully investigated," SpaceX said.

Not Related To Other Incidents

The Sept. 1 incident is in no way connected to the Falcon 9 rocket explosion in June 2015, although both failures originated in the rockets' upper liquid oxygen tanks, The Verge reported.

"We have exonerated any connection with last year's … mishap," SpaceX said.

Still, the 2015 explosion was caused by a faulty strut in the Falcon 9 rocket's liquid oxygen tank. SpaceX replaced thousands of brackets and resumed launch six months after the June explosion.

In the meantime, the company will repair damaged areas at the primary launch site. It did not disclose how much the repair would cost, or when the repair would be completed.

SpaceX is also working to recover from the explosion as soon possible, aiming to return to launch by November this year.

The company is also working on getting vehicles prepared for NASA's Commercial Crew Program. A spokesperson said that determining the source of the Sept. 1 explosion will make the crew program "more robust."

Lastly, getting back to flight safely is the company's main priority, the spokesperson said.

Photo: SpaceX | Flickr

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