SpaceX Rocket Blast Destroys Satellite for Facebook Project

Raw Video: SpaceX Rocket Explodes
  • Blast sets back effort to spread internet access in Africa
  • No workers were injured in accident following static fire test

A SpaceX rocket blew up on a launchpad in Florida, marking the second loss of a spacecraft by Elon Musk’s venture in a little more than a year and hobbling a Facebook Inc. initiative to spread internet access across Africa.

The accident occurred Thursday at Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 40 as SpaceX held a dress rehearsal for Saturday’s planned launch of an Israeli communications satellite. Both the Falcon 9 rocket and its payload were incinerated as fireballs scorched the structure.

The blast was a reminder of the peril inherent in space flight, which relies on controlled explosions to power payloads to orbit. But it wasn’t expected to dent Musk’s effort to shake up the staid launch industry or dim his goal of one day colonizing Mars.

Twitter: Elon Musk on Twitter

“Today’s incident -- while it was not a NASA launch -- is a reminder that spaceflight is an incredible challenge, but our partners learn from each success and setback,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a statement.

The blast, which occurred shortly after 9 a.m. local time before a test firing of the rocket’s engines, left a plume of thick black smoke and rattled windows in buildings miles away, according to Twitter posts.

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The failure occurred as fuel was loaded onto the rocket, Musk said in a tweet, adding the problem “originated around upper stage oxygen tank. Cause still unknown. More soon.” Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, who is traveling in Africa, said he was “deeply disappointed.”

Accident Investigation

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which licenses launches, will oversee the company’s investigation into the mishap, the agency said in an e-mail. The FAA typically doesn’t do its own probe, as the agency would for an accident in the airline world.

The accident caused a web frenzy because of the Amos-6 satellite’s Facebook connection. But it may not prove more than a short-term setback to SpaceX, which has scheduled more than 70 launches, representing $10 billion in contracts.

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“It’s unfortunate that this happened. But the satellite for Facebook can be rebuilt pretty quickly,” Timothy Carone, an astrophysicist and teaching professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “SpaceX knows how to make vehicles, put payloads up there. I think the recovery from this will be pretty rapid.”

Launchpad Critical

The damage to SpaceX’s launchpad on Florida’s cape may prove critical in determining how quickly the commercial rocket venture can resume its full schedule of flights, including the first use of a reused rocket, Carone said. SpaceX is restoring a second pad for human space flight on the Florida cape and building another launch facility in Texas. It also uses California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base for some missions.

Damage hasn’t been determined yet because no one has been to the pad to evaluate it. Nobody was granted exclusive access to the area, according to the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing.

Thursday’s explosion could have global repercussions, since the successful launch of the satellite was a condition of Space Communication Ltd.’s $285 million sale to a Beijing Xinwei Group unit, according to an Aug. 24 filing to the Tel Aviv stock market. The Israeli satellite operator tumbled 8.9 percent to 39.08 shekels at the close in Tel Aviv, the biggest drop in nine months.

Facebook Project

“The deal will either be canceled or the price will be reduced,” said Meir Slater, head of research at Bank of Jerusalem. “These satellites are insured, so the bondholders are covered, but in terms of the shareholders, they lose out because any damage done to the satellites means a loss of customers such as Facebook.”

The destroyed satellite was intended to beam Internet service to sub-Saharan Africa as Facebook and Eutelsat team up to connect people in remote parts of the world, Zuckerberg wrote in an Oct. 5 post. He’s on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa, where he has been meeting with entrepreneurs, government ministers and app developers.

“I’m deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX’s launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent,” Zuckerberg said in a post Thursday. “We remain committed to our mission of connecting everyone.”

SpaceX Launches

Saturday’s launch was to be the ninth of the year for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which had settled into a steady tempo of flights following a June 2015 accident that grounded its rockets for six months. That failure was linked to a two-foot-long, inch-thick strut that snapped in a liquid oxygen tank.

The latest “anomaly occurred during propellant loading of the first and second stages,” SpaceX said in a statement, adding that no one was injured. “We are continuing to review the data to identify the root cause.”

Musk’s Hawthorne, California-based company has shaken up the space industry by introducing cost competition and successfully landing rocket boosters to be reused. It has won contracts with NASA to ferry cargo and crew to the International Space Station and agreements with commercial satellite companies to send satellites into orbit.

“Everyone faces these same issues,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in an interview. “It’s a very difficult business to be in.”

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