Physicist Scott Manley says that Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket blew up in September due to warm weather.
SpaceX claims the explosion was caused by a complex process that involved broken carbon fibers, causing super cold oxygen to catch fire and explode. Manley’s explanation of SpaceX’s technobabble is that the company used a risky fueling process, which can cause an explosion due to changing temperatures caused by warmer than expected weather.
“The short answer is that a helium tank in the second stage ruptured and basically caused the whole tank to explode, but the real answer is more complicated than that,” said Manley in a Youtube video. “The Falcon 9 uses something called densified propellant. That sounds complicated, but what it really means is that instead of having the liquid oxygen in the tank sit at its boiling point, they chill it even more so that its near its freezing point.”
Manley explained that densified propellant gets warmer due to temperature outside the rocket and expands. This expansion stressed the SpaceX rocket and ultimately caused the explosion.
“[Densified propellant] gives them about ten percent extra fuel density,” said Manley. “You can actually get more performance out of the engines in theory, but the disadvantage of this is that you can’t leave a rocket with densified propellant sitting on the launch pad for long periods of time.”
Data from SpaceX shows that one of the rocket’s tanks buckled inward slightly because it was left outside for slightly too long, causing a temperature change. The change caused the area around the tank to buckle, which caused the liquid oxygen to solidify inside another tank. This caused a small tear, which provided just enough energy to catch the liquid oxygen and combust, which caused other fuel inside to flow out and overpressure the tank.
Manley blames SpaceX’s methods of loading densified propellant, which was set up to be as fast as possible, inadvertently causing the explosion. SpaceX can apparently adjust its rockets and fueling procedures so they can handle warmer temperatures for longer.
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, before the explosion. The Committee reiterated its concerns after the explosion, but the company initially declined to review its policies.
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.
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