Nearly two months after Falcon 9 pad explosion at Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX revealed Oct. 28 the outcomes of its investigation. The accident that destroyed the vehicle and the satellite it was set to carry into space – Israeli communication satellite Amos-6 – most likely originated in one of three helium pressure vessels located in the upper portion of the rocket. The company continues its investigation, but Friday’s statement confirms what it suspected last month.
The Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad before the flight during an engine test. SpaceX said in Sep.t 23 that there was a “large breach” in the cryogenic helium system in the propellant tank before the accident.
Elon Musk’s firm said in September that a breach in the cryogenic helium system in the rocket’s upper liquid oxygen tank might have caused the explosion, as reported by The Verge. Engineers use this kind of system to pressurize the vehicle during flight.
SpaceX has been carrying out several tests at its facility in McGregor, Texas, by recreating the same circumstances that led to the accident. The investigation showed that the vehicle’s helium pressure vessels could fail when conditions created during helium loading are not exactly favorable. The temperature and the pressure of the helium play a significant role in this process, the company said.
The firm uses tanks made of fiber composite materials to store helium within the liquid oxygen propellant tank of the rocket’s second stage, according to Space News. The findings led the firm to understand the focus of the next steps: making the helium process more reliable as they continue to investigate every aspect involved in the explosion.
Friday’s declarations confirm recent statements by company officials that suggested a root cause being originated in the way the launch vehicle is prepared for launch rather than a flaw with the car itself.
During a speech at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering Oct. 9, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said she thought the cause of the explosion had not been “a vehicle issue or an engineering design issue but more of a business process issue,” as reported by Space News.
The company said it would soon resume tests Falcon 9 stages at its Texas facility and added it was a critical step towards resuming launches. It is preparing to resume activity from its pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Launch Complex 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, which are set to support a return to flight later this year.
Speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium Oct. 26 in Huntsville, Alabama, SpaceX’s head of government business development Josh Brost said the firm would activate Launch Complex 39A for Falcon 9 launches in less than a month. He added that this would be the facility where the company would return to flight on the East Coast, “hopefully later this year,” as quoted by Space News.
It remains unclear the extent of the damage suffered by the Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral as a result of the explosion and the firm has not revealed when hosting launches would resume there.
In the meantime, SpaceX’s customers are well aware of the investigation process to determine when the company will be able to continue launches. During an Oct. 27 conference call, Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, said its firm is part of the accident investigation team and is confident that SpaceX “is conducting a very thorough process,” Space News reported.
Iridium was set to fly next to launch the first ten of its Iridium Next satellites from Vandenberg before the pad explosion that resulted in the loss of the Amos-6 satellite.
“I remain hopeful that they’ll return to launching this year,” Desch said during the call. “Also, I don’t know if Iridium Next will be SpaceX’s first launch once they return to flight or whether they might schedule a launch from Florida ahead of us. I assure you that we won’t proceed to launch if we aren’t confident in SpaceX and their investigation outcome,” Desch added.
But of course, it is impossible to have everything nailed down after a crisis. SpaceX’s bigger projects that were scheduled for this year have been postponed, including Falcon Heavy’s first flight which will take place in the first quarter of 2017, according to a report by Shotwell. The Verge described this product as a super heavy-lift version of the Falcon 9.
And the company said earlier this week that the first launch of one of SpaceX’s previously flown rockets originally scheduled for this fall would take place in early 2017, as reported by Space News.
Source: Space News