SpaceX tells Business Insider it has “no reason to believe there was an explosion of any kind” aboard its Falcon 9 rocket launch.
The statement contradicts a report based on information from the SpaceTrack satellite tracking service that said Falcon 9 appeared to have disintegrated into 20 parts after reaching orbit.
That report said there was evidence for an explosion aboard Elon Musk’s rocket in orbit above the Earth. The report was carried on Zarya, a space flight blog. The report has not been confirmed by other more established media.
Here is SpaceX’s full statement:
We have no reason to believe there was an explosion of any kind. Based on previous launch experiences, we do know it’s common that the first measurements from Space-Track are not very accurate and sometimes mixed up … usually takes a few days for them to sort it all out and that’s with fewer objects to track.
In general we have a tremendous amount of data to go through on this end, not exactly sure when that process will be complete, but we’ll release our findings when it is.
Previously, Zarya reported that SpaceTrack — a satellite tracking service — shows that Falcon 9 is currently in pieces:
Normally, SpaceTrack would expect to be listing the six released satellite combinations, the rocket body and maybe a couple of debris items. A few hours after launch, the catalogue was showing 20 items in a scatter of orbit, indicating an explosion.
One of the satellites may be the suspect but the most likely culprit is SpaceX’s Falcon 9. It seems to have suffered some kind of failure after the payloads departed.
The 20 items show a scatter in apogee (1350-1654 km) and perigee (235-415 km) values, and inclinations vary between 80°.94 and 81°.04.
The chart shows that there was explosive force involved rather than a gentle disintegration. The cross indicates the target orbit and the fragments’ orbits are scattered fairly evenly around it.
Here’s the SpaceTrack chart, per Zarya:
Falcon 9 was launched Sept 29, and
successfully delivered its satellites, according to Reuters:
“It’s certainly a huge relief to have successfully delivered Cassiope to orbit. It’s been weighing on me quite heavily,” Musk said.
Cassiope, which is designed to monitor the space environment around Earth and serve as a communications satellite, and five secondary payloads were delivered into their intended orbits, Musk told reporters on a conference call.
And, indeed, parts of the Falcon 9 system are designed to explode after launch. This launch included a test of a new system designed to restart previously disposable booster engines that detach from the main rocket, and have them return to earth so they can be recovered, Reuters added:
Musk is particularly interested in developing the technology to fly the Falcon’s first stage back to the launch site or have it gently splash down in the water so its motors can be recovered, refurbished and reflown. Currently, after delivering their payloads into orbit, the boosters tumble back toward Earth and essentially explode mid-air before crashing into the sea.
The test was partially successful, according to Space.com:
While three of the first stage’s nine engines did indeed restart during the reusable rocket test, upon re-entry it began to tumble, causing a centrifuge effect that starved the engines and ultimately caused the fuselage to break up before it could complete the task of fully testing the braking system.
Space.com reported that the launch didn’t go completely smoothly — an audio link was broken in the press area and reporters were surprised when the rocket took off before anyone heard the traditional countdown.
Zurya also noted that part of the video feed from the rocket was lost during launch. You can see that video below. It shows the Falcon 9 lifting off, followed by a blank screen with the message “awaiting vehicle downlink.” The video clearly shows Falcon 9 rising into space under control, but the blank screen repeatedly comes back into view.
And there was an anomaly previously described as an explosion aboard a Falcon launch in 2012. You can see video of it here — one of the engines blew a panel during launch. SpaceX, however, denied it was an explosion, stating that the engine was designed to behave this way in the event of a sudden loss of pressure:
Approximately one minute and 19 seconds into last night’s launch, the Falcon 9 rocket detected an anomaly on one first stage engine. Initial data suggests that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines, Engine 1, lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued. We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it. Panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines. Our review of flight data indicates that neither the rocket stage nor any of the other eight engines were negatively affected by this event.
The engine-out didn’t affect the mission, SpaceX said at the time:
Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do. Like the Saturn V (which experienced engine loss on two flights) and modern airliners, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine out situation and still complete its mission. No other rocket currently flying has this ability.