SpaceX Wants To Return To Orbit 4 Months After Explosion

(REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo)

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Elon Musk plans to put a spacecraft into Earth’s orbit for the first time since an explosion destroyed one of his SpaceX rockets four months ago.

Musk’s company SpaceX will put 10 small probes into orbit for satellite operator Iridium Sunday. The company will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, though an exact time for the flight remains unclear.

SpaceX claims that the previous explosion was caused by a complex process that involved broken carbon fibers, causing super cold oxygen to ignite. SpaceX was forced to ground all of its rockets after the September accident, as the company didn’t know what triggered the explosion.

“[I]nvestigators concluded that super chilled LOX [liquid oxygen] can pool in these buckles under the overwrap,” according to a SpaceX press statement.

“When pressurized, oxygen pooled in this buckle can become trapped; in turn, breaking fibers or friction can ignite the oxygen in the overwrap, causing the COPV [composite overwrapped pressure vessels] to fail,” the statement reads. “In addition, investigators determined that the loading temperature of the helium was cold enough to create solid oxygen (SOX), which exacerbates the possibility of oxygen becoming trapped as well as the likelihood of friction ignition.”

SpaceX previously suspected that the problem was in the rocket’s helium loading system. The massive fireball destroyed the $60 million rocket and a $200 million satellite to provide phone, video and internet services for the Middle East, Europe, and locations across sub-Saharan Africa.

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.

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 lawsuit from the telecommunications company whose satellite was destroyed by the rocket explosion. SpaceX declined to tell Forbes if SFF estimates were accurate.

NASA’s Space Station Advisory Committee has serious concerns about the company’s safety standards, and suggested that SpaceX review it policies. The committee has been saying this to NASA since at least 2015, and reiterated its concerns after a SpaceX rocket exploded in September. The company appears to have declined reviewing its policies.

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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