Billionaire Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX says it may have figured out why one of its rockets blew up in early September.
SpaceX suspects that the problem was in the rocket’s helium loading system, but isn’t sure of the root cause. The massive fireball destroyed a $60 million SpaceX rocket and a $200 million satellite to provide phone, video and internet services for the Middle East, Europe, and locations across sub-Saharan Africa.
“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 LOX tank,” SpaceX explained in a press statement. “Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions … 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.”
Other industry experts suspect the explosion could have been caused by anything from a fuel leak, unknown contaminants in the liquid oxygen propellant, or a problem with rocket staging.
Musk’s investigators suspected that the rocket was sabotaged in early October, going so far as attempting to access the roof of a nearby building owned by SpaceX’s business rival, United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is a joint venture between major aerospace defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing. SpaceX had still images from video of the explosion that appeared to show unusual activity on the roof of a nearby building belonging to ULA.
ULA denied the SpaceX employee access to the roof, and instead called U.S. Air Force investigators, who inspected it, but didn’t find anything connecting it to the rocket explosion. SpaceX and ULA compete over lucrative national security contracts. ULA had a monopoly on those contracts for about a decade since it was the only launch provider certified by the U.S. Air Force.
Musk will have a harder time finding new clients and is risking a serious financial loss with each new launch, potentially driving customers to ULA and SpaceX’s other business rivals. The Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) estimated that SpaceX must spend $120 million to replace the lost rocket, factoring in future revenue from reusing the booster and the costs of repairing the launch pad. The company could also be hit with a $50 million dollar lawsuit from the telecommunications company whose satellite the rocket explosion destroyed. SpaceX declined to tell Forbes if SFF estimates were accurate.
The launch pad the rocket blew up on is still out of action.
SpaceX rockets have previously exploded several times during landing attempts, which Musk called a “huge blow.” SpaceX had nine more scheduled launches this year. After the company’s last launch failure, it took nearly six months before Falcon 9 launches were resumed. ULA employees have estimated that it could take up to a full year to resume launches.
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