Elon Musk’s SpaceX just told us that it is possible that parts of its Falcon 9 rocket are now “in several pieces” orbiting Earth, but that there was “no rupture” or explosion aboard the craft, as earlier reported.
The statement explains an earlier 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 that Falcon 9, Musk’s private satellite launching service, appears to have exploded.
Not so, SpaceX said in a statement to Business Insider:
Our data confirms there was no rupture of any kind on the second stage.
Following separation of the satellites to their correct orbit, the Falcon 9 second stage underwent a controlled venting of propellants (fuel and pressure were released from the tank) and the stage was successfully safed. During this process, it is possible insulation came off the fuel dome on the second stage and is the source of what some observers incorrectly interpreted as a rupture in the second stage.
This material would be in several pieces and reflective in the Space Track radar. It is also possible the debris came from the student satellite separation mechanisms onboard.
SpaceX will continue to review to help identify the source of the extra debris, but again, our data confirms there was no rupture of any kind on the second stage.
The space blog Zarya had previously reported:
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.
It’s not clear whether insulation coming off the fuel dome during a fuel venting counts as an “explosion” or not.
Of course, rockets are often designed to break into pieces once their jobs are done. (Panels fell off Falcon’s launch last year, as well.)
And, to give credit to Musk’s team, the Falcon 9 did successfully deliver its payload. So, job done.